Ford Revives Argo AI From the Dead

This seems like a strategy on behalf of Ford to be able to take incremental steps to develop systems in-house
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In October last year, after having invested $1 billion in the autonomous vehicle technology company, Argo AI, Ford had to pull the throttle up. Unfortunately, Argo AI shut shop and though it may seem like, Ford’s dreams didn’t come to rest like its investment. 

The company recently announced Latitude AI, a brand new venture to develop new autonomous driving technology with a focus on “hands-free, eyes-off-the-road” driver assist system for the next-generation Ford vehicles. 

Re-inventing Argo AI? 

Argo AI’s two main investors – Ford and Volkswagen – were incurring mounting losses as commercialisation of Level 4 advanced driver-assistance systems seemed almost impossible. If we talk numbers, “Ford recorded a $2.7 billion non-cash, pretax impairment on its investment in Argo AI, resulting in an $827 million net loss for Q3.” 

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Meanwhile, the company also failed to secure new outside investors. Hence, its demise was imminent. Plus, in the wave of consolidation happening at the time, it was believed that only those companies would survive that had the capital and infrastructure to build end-to-end systems. Tesla was the poster company for such a realisation. Thus, there was a growing sentiment in favour of full self-driving through improving driver assistance (like Tesla, Comma) as against a robotaxi business model (like Cruise, Waymo). 

In this vein, Ford also maintained that it intends to invest more time and money in Level 2/3 driver-assist tech, than a Level-4 robotaxi technology. The automakers’ own L3 BlueCruise system, known as the Active Driving Assistance (ADA) system, is “the simultaneous use of a car’s adaptive cruise control (ACC) to control speed and lane centering assistance (LCA) to control steering”. The two systems work together to ensure the vehicle is always at a safe distance from the ones ahead, and is at or near the centre of the lane. 

The “hands-free” technology comes handy in straight stretches and traffic jams where drivers can engage in relaxed driving. Additionally, what makes BlueCruise rank higher in the Consumer Research report is the safety it guarantees with the direct driver monitoring systems (DDMS). With infrared cameras pointing at driver faces, DDMS sounds an alert and slows down the car if the driver doesn’t pay attention to the road. 

The fight for dominance in the “self-driving car” market is getting fierce, with Mercedes-Benz announcing early this year that they have cracked the code for Level 3 driving system, ahead of Tesla. BMW has also confirmed the launch of the L3 self-driving system this year. There is also Jaguar Land Rover, Audi, Volkswagen, Volvo, Nissan – you name it. The list is endless and they are all going the Tesla way. 

Pulling out investment from Argo AI, which developed self-driving products and services, to form its own company from the remains of Argo AI, seems like a strategy on behalf of Ford to be able to take incremental steps to develop systems in-house. This will also take the focus away from the overarching goal of “autonomous cars”. 

‘Data Centres on Wheels’

With all automobile companies jumping on the AV (Autonomous Vehicles) bandwagon, there is one that has been at the centre of all, enabling this – Google. The giant has partnered with automobile manufacturers like Mercedes-Benz, Renault, Ford, Volvo, Toyota, Nissan, Kia, Honda, and several others. Likewise, AWS has set foot in this region with BMW, Alfa Romeo, Chrysler, and Jeep, and Microsoft Azure with Tata Motors and Volkswagen.  

It’s a no-brainer that software is crucial to self-driving cars. The vehicles collect an extraordinary amount of real-time data from sensors (cameras, lidar, and radar) to predict movement paths of objects in the surrounding environment and evaluate possible courses of action. This way, cars of the future will be nothing but ‘data centres on wheels’. Hence, being able to compute the data on cloud will be key. 

Additionally, with carmakers making up a growing segment of Google’s Cloud business, there is an opportunity for it to get back the market share taken by AWS and Azure. The automotive companies will leverage greatly upon Google Maps’ geospatial data and navigation capabilities, alongside using Google Cloud’s AI and ML capabilities to create, train, and deploy AI models at speed.   

Dangers Ahead

Not everything is merry when there is an immense amount of data available at the hands of these companies. And we are already starting to see the dangers. For example, reports emerged that Ford recently applied for a patent on a system that would assist with vehicle repossession in the case of delinquent payments. The news of the patent’s publication, first reported by The Drive, describes a variety of procedures to enable this. Those include, sending notifications to the owner’s smartphone or the car itself, completely locking out the driver, disabling certain functions like air conditioning, and geofencing the vehicle to restrict it to a specific time or location. 

This kind of system completely ignores the reason why an individual has fallen behind on payment, and takes a rather autocratic stand over it. And like The Verge’s article points out – the future looks like one handicapped reality where the extended software systems will decide where we go, what we do, and how we do it. 

Ayush Jain
Ayush is interested in knowing how technology shapes and defines our culture, and our understanding of the world. He believes in exploring reality at the intersections of technology and art, science, and politics.

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