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Ford pumps $1bn into AI and virtual driver

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Ford has announced a $1 billion investment over the next five years in Argo AI, an artificial intelligence company, to develop a virtual driver system for the automaker’s autonomous vehicle coming in 2021.

Ford Motor Company has announced it is investing $1 billion during the next five years in Argo AI, an artificial intelligence company, to develop a virtual driver system for the automaker’s autonomous vehicle coming in 2021 – and for potential license to other companies.

Founded by former Google and Uber leaders, Argo AI is bringing together some of the most experienced roboticists and engineers working in autonomy from inside and outside of Ford. The team of experts in robotics and artificial intelligence is led by Argo AI founders Bryan Salesky, company CEO, and Peter Rander, company COO. Both are alumni of Carnegie Mellon National Robotics Engineering Center and former leaders on the self-driving car teams of Google and Uber, respectively.

“The next decade will be defined by the automation of the automobile, and autonomous vehicles will have as significant an impact on society as Ford’s moving assembly line did 100 years ago,” said Ford President and CEO Mark Fields. “As Ford expands to be an auto and a mobility company, we believe that investing in Argo AI will create significant value for our shareholders by strengthening Ford’s leadership in bringing self-driving vehicles to market in the near term and by creating technology that could be licensed to others in the future.”

The current team developing Ford’s virtual driver system – the machine-learning software that acts as the brain of autonomous vehicles – will be combined with the robotics talent and expertise of Argo AI. This innovative partnership will work to deliver the virtual driver system for Ford’s SAE level 4 self-driving vehicles.

Ford will continue to lead on development of its purpose-built autonomous vehicle hardware platform, as well as on systems integration, manufacturing, exterior and interior design, and regulatory policy management.

Argo AI will join forces with Ford’s autonomous vehicle software development effort to strengthen the commercialization of self-driving vehicles. Argo AI’s agility and Ford’s scale uniquely combine the benefits of a technology startup with the experience and discipline of the automaker’s industry-leading autonomous vehicle development program.

“We are at an inflection point in using artificial intelligence in a wide range of applications, and the successful deployment of self-driving cars will fundamentally change how people and goods move,” said Salesky. “We are energized by Ford’s commitment and vision for the future of mobility, and we believe this partnership will enable self-driving cars to be commercialized and deployed at scale to extend affordable mobility to all.”

The collaboration supports Ford’s intent to have a fully autonomous, SAE level 4-capable vehicle for commercial application in mobility services in 2021.

“Working together with Argo AI gives Ford a distinct competitive advantage at the intersection of the automotive and technology industries,” said Raj Nair, Ford executive vice president, Global Product Development, and chief technical officer. “This open collaboration is unlike any other partnership – allowing us to benefit from combining the speed of a startup with Ford’s strengths in scaling technology, systems integration and vehicle design.”

Also complementing the relationship will be Ford Smart Mobility LLC, which will lead on the commercialization strategy for Ford’s self-driving vehicles. This includes choices for using autonomous vehicles to move goods and people, such as ride sharing, ride hailing or package delivery fleets.

Ford will be the majority stakeholder in Argo AI. Importantly, Argo AI has been structured to operate with substantial independence. Its employees will have significant equity participation in the company, enabling them to share in its success. Argo AI’s board will have five members: Nair; John Casesa, Ford group vice president, Global Strategy; Salesky; Rander; and an independent director.

The $1 billion investment in Argo AI will be made over five years and is consistent with the autonomous vehicle capital allocation plan shared last September as part of Ford Investor Day.

By the end of this year, Argo AI expects to have more than 200 team members, based in the company’s Pittsburgh headquarters and at major sites in Southeastern Michigan and the Bay Area of California.

Argo AI’s initial focus will be to support Ford’s autonomous vehicle development and production. In the future, Argo AI could license its technology to other companies and sectors looking for autonomous capability.

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Body-tracking tech moves to assembly line

Technology typically used by the world’s top sport stars to raise their game, or ensure their signature skills are accurately replicated in leading video games, is now being used on an auto assembly line.

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Employees at Ford’s Valencia Engine Assembly Plant, in Spain, are using a special suit equipped with advanced body tracking technology. The pilot system, created by Ford and the Instituto Biomecánica de Valencia, has involved 70 employees in 21 work areas. 

Player motion technology usually records how athletes sprint or turn, enabling sport coaches or game developers to unlock the potential of sport stars in the real world or on screen. Ford is using it to design less physically stressful workstations for enhanced manufacturing quality.

“It’s been proven on the sports field that with motion tracking technology, tiny adjustments to the way you move can have a huge benefit,” said Javier Gisbert, production area manager, Ford Valencia Engine Assembly Plant. “For our employees, changes made to work areas using similar technology can ultimately ensure that, even on a long day, they are able to work comfortably.”

Engineers took inspiration from a suit they saw at a trade fair that demonstrated how robots could replicate human movement and then applied it to their workplace, where production of the  new Ford Transit Connect and 2.0-litre EcoBoost Duratec engines began this month.

The skin-tight suit consists of 15 tiny movement tracking light sensors connected to a wireless detection unit. The system tracks how the person moves at work, highlighting head, neck, shoulder and limb movements. Movement is recorded by four specialised motion-tracking cameras – similar to those usually paired with computer game consoles – placed near the worker and captured as a 3D skeletal character animation of the user.

Specially trained ergonomists then use the data to help employees align their posture correctly. Measurements captured by the system, such as an employee’s height or arm length, are used to design workstations, so they better fit employees. 

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Electric cars begin to bridge the luxury gap

A new era has dawned as electric mobility bridges the gap between luxury and necessity, writes TREVOR HILL – head of Audi South Africa.

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Mobility is essential to today’s world. We travel to get to work, to go shopping, and to meet friends and family – in short, effective transport impacts on all aspects of our modern lives. Access to mobility is critical to economic growth and progress, bringing more opportunities and better productivity. At the same time however, growing environmental concerns and a looming shortage of fossil fuels have created tension between our ever-growing demand for mobility and the health of our planet.

Growing populations, increasing urbanization and economic and social development mean that there are more cars on our roads each day. The knock-on effects of this are greater levels of congestion and longer times spent commuting, which means more stress and higher levels of aggression on the road. Skyrocketing levels of air pollution – to which transportation is one of the leading contributors – has negative effects on both health and climate change, both of which are key issues in global policy agendas.

So, the writing has been on the wall for some time. The gold standard in automotive technological progress has thus been to achieve a radical reduction of engine emissions and the development of electric cars has been at the forefront of this charge. We have now entered the beginning of a new era, as more and more of these vehicles take to the roads. Electric cars are now at the cusp of the mass market, with a steady stream of new models set to reach the consumer in future. Last week, we launched the Audi e-tron, our first all-electric-drive SUV, at a world premiere in San Francisco – one huge leap forward in pursuit of our goal. Audi will also bring more than 20 electrified models to the market by 2025, from the compact class to the full-size category. Around a dozen models will be all-electric, while the remainder will be plug-in hybrids for emission-free driving on shorter journeys.

Powering this development is ongoing improvement in battery technology, with increasing energy density and lengthened driving ranges possible between charges. Consumers have noted that they feel confident using electric cars for day-to-day use once battery technology can sustain a driving range of 300 or more kilometres, which is now possible. The Audi e-tron has a range of 400 kilometers, making it ideal for long distance driving. Drivers who charge the e-tron overnight can set off in the morning in full confidence that they won’t need to stop at a charging station as they go about their day.

What this technological progress also means however, is that the levels of power and performance achieved by an electric car draw ever closer to those of traditional engines. For anyone who loves high strung, powerful engines and the rush of adrenaline that comes from flooring the throttle on an empty stretch of road, this is no small thing.  At Audi, we are lucky to be surrounded by some of the most exceptional engines ever produced, so few people understand the thrill of an extraordinary driving experience better than we do. So, the holy grail is to achieve this same performance with vastly improved economy.

The Audi e-tron’s electric drive has two asynchronous motors, one at the front, one at the rear, with a total output of 300 kW of power. This allows the Audi e-tron to accelerate from 0 to 100km/h in just 5.7 seconds.

The next step will be the development of electric cars suitable for those who regularly drive long distances, entailing further advances in battery technology, and the development of a network of charging stations across the country. The battery for the Audi e-tron is designed to last the entire life cycle of the vehicle. When charged at a high-power charging station at up to 150 kW, the Audi e-tron can be restored to 80% in less than half an hour. At 22 kW, the Audi e-tron can charge its battery to 100% in around four and a half hours.

For city dwellers, however, the age of electric mobility has well and truly arrived. Rapid advances in technology continue to drive progress; the rise of electric cars is only one of many developments set to transform transportation as we know it, heralding a cleaner, more efficient future.

 

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