Move over, Uber: Ford drops $1 billion into Pittsburgh self-driving car startup

Argo AI, which expects to add 200 jobs by the end of this year, is headquartered in the city.

Uber's fleet of autonomous Ford Fusions from 2016

Uber's fleet of autonomous Ford Fusions from 2016

Jared Wickerham/ For The Incline
MJ Slaby

A Pittsburgh-based Artificial Intelligence startup will develop the “virtual driver system” for Ford’s autonomous vehicles, thanks to a $1 billon investment from the automotive company.

That investment is expected to create 200 jobs at Argo AI’s Pittsburgh headquarters and at the company’s two other offices by the end of the year, as Ford works to put a self-driving car on the market in 2021.

Argo AI is headed by CEO Bryan Salesky and COO Peter Rander, who led self-driving vehicle work at Google and Uber, respectively. They previously worked at Carnegie Mellon University’s National Robotics Engineering Center, which Uber famously plundered for talent.

The announcement comes one week after Mayor Bill Peduto told The Incline that he’s “had conversations with Ford and preliminary talks with Google” about bringing self-driving car research to Pittsburgh. Peduto said his goal is to have multiple companies doing research, development and manufacturing here. Before Ford’s announcement, there were three: Uber, Delphi and CMU.

After angry customers launched #DeleteUber, Peduto told The Incline that he has been repeatedly disappointed by Uber, including in the company’s actions following President Trump’s travel ban that sparked the campaign. The mayor texted Uber CEO Travis Kalanick to tell him so.

Peduto told CityLab that if Uber left Pittsburgh, “there are autonomous vehicle companies that would line up” for a partnership.

Argo AI is a “previously unheard of artificial intelligence startup” that has “operated in secret out of its Pittsburgh headquarters for months,” The Verge reported.

Rander left Uber “where he was one of the top engineers for its self-driving division” in September, per Recode. That’s the same month that Uber launched its self-driving car pilot to the public in Pittsburgh using an autonomous fleet of 14 Ford Fusions.

According to Recode, the $1 billion investment over five years is the most Ford has spent on autonomous technology. It also gives Ford a majority stake in Argo AI. According to a news release from the company, Ford’s plans also include the ability to license the Argo AI technology to other companies looking for AI capability.

Peduto and Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald issued a joint press release to praise the announcement. “This investment, which also brings jobs to this region, takes full advantage of the intellectual talent and work ethic at our great universities, and merges traditional industry with next generation innovation,” Fitzgerald said.

More than 700 people work in Pittsburgh on Uber’s self-driving vehicles, and there are another 100 job openings. By the end of 2018, there will likely be more than 1,000 Uber employees in Pittsburgh, Peduto told The Incline.

In the release, Peduto said the Ford announcement is the type of news that keeps Pittsburgh in “global headlines on this growing industry, which stems from the hard work and brainpower of our friends at Carnegie Mellon, and the many industries they continue to seed and grow throughout our region.

“I want to thank Ford for banking on all Pittsburgh has to offer,” Peduto said.

Last month, the U.S. Department of Transportation designated Pittsburgh as a federal testing ground for self-driving vehicles. That same month, the Department of Defense invested $250 million to launch an advanced robotics manufacturing institute led by CMU.

Currently, the only Pennsylvania law that applies to testers of self-driving cars says a licensed driver must be in the driver’s seat, but that doesn’t mean that person has to touch the wheel. Legislation that specifically addresses testing self-driving vehicles is expected to be introduced by state lawmakers sometime this month.

In December, PennDot’s Autonomous Vehicle Testing Policy Task Force gave its recommendations to PennDot Secretary Leslie S. Richards. That task force included government, research and industry representatives, including members from Uber and General Motors, but not Ford.