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Ford Acquires Robotics Company to Speed up the Development of Self-Driving Cars

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【Summary】The Ford Motor Company, with its recently acquired autonomous driving arm Argo.AI, is racing to be the first major automaker to mass-deploy self-driving cars by 2021—the company’s self-imposed deadline. To help Ford achieve its goal, the Detroit automaker has acquired a relatively unknown Michigan defense contractor with experience in robotics.

Eric Walz    Jul 30, 2019 11:45 AM PT
Ford Acquires Robotics Company to Speed up the Development of Self-Driving Cars

The Ford Motor Company, with its recently acquired autonomous driving arm Argo.AI, is racing to be the first major automaker to mass-deploy self-driving cars by 2021—the company's self-imposed deadline. To help Ford achieve its goal, the Detroit automaker has acquired a relatively unknown Michigan defense contractor with experience in autonomous robotics.

Ford announced it paid an undisclosed sum to acquire Michigan-based Quantum Signal AI, a 40-member team of robotics developers located near the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Quantum Signal was founded as a technology spin-off from the University of Michigan.

Although it's a relatively unknown company, Quantum Signal is renowned for its "ANVEL" modeling and simulation environment, which helped the U.S. military develop software that allowed it to remotely control robotic vehicles from thousands of miles away. It also built a robust simulation environment capable of testing autonomous vehicle designs that's still being used today.

In addition to simulation, Ford said that Quantum Signal has done extensive work developing algorithms that help guide autonomous vehicles. The company has experience sensing and perception systems, which can be used to help improve the perception systems of Ford's autonomous vehicles so they can better analyze the environment around them.

Ford sees those skills as a perfect fit for the unpredictable and often chaotic world its autonomous vehicles will need to navigate with its planned self-driving delivery business in multiple U.S. cities.

Ford hopes to make use of Quantum Signal's extensive experience in real-time simulation and algorithm development to develop its Transportation as a Service (TaaS) platform, as well as vehicle controls that support the customer experience, functional safety and other vehicle systems. 

Advancing Ford's Autonomous Vehicle Development

Quantum Signal is expected to play a crucial role in advancing Ford's self-driving vehicle development. Ford's says the company's technology can help it to develop even more comprehensive simulation environments to test autonomous vehicles.

"The number one priority is 2021, it's all about getting that done," said Randy Visintainer, Chief Technical Officer (CTO), Ford Autonomous Vehicles LLC in an interview with Automotive News. "When we first set that target, we knew this was a very, very hard problem and we weren't going to be able to do it alone."

Quantum's simulation and robotics experts will work alongside the team at Argo AI, Ford's self-driving partner, and Ford's own researchers, Visintainer said.

Ford jumpstarted its own autonomous plans earlier this month by forming an unprecedented alliance with rival automaker the Volkswagen Group to develop self-driving cars. Volkswagen is the world's biggest automaker. 

As part of the deal with Ford, VW agreed to contribute $2.6 billion to Argo AI, giving Ford's autonomous startup a $7 billion valuation. The move has vaulted Ford and VW ahead of rival automakers in self-driving technology, bring them closer to industry leaders Waymo and GM Cruise.

Waymo spun out of Google's early self-driving car project and has been working on the technology since for the past decade and is considered the leader in autonomous driving. GM Cruise, a San Francisco-based autonomous driving startup, was purchased by General Motors in Feb 2016 for over $1 billion in an move jumpstart GM's own self-driving car efforts.

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Quantum will help Ford develop autonomous technology for a delivery service it's planning to launch.

Quantum has a clear mission to create simulations and robotic controls that will guide Ford's autonomous taxis and self-driving delivery vehicles.

"We know exactly where they're going to fit into our business and how they're going to help us move our business forward," said Randy Visintainer, Chief Technical Officer (CTO), Ford Autonomous Vehicles LLC. "They're not a startup; they're an established company with a proven track record. We already have growth plans for them."

Quantum Signals will continue to operate independently, with its own human resources department, and continue to be run by co-founder Mitchell Rohde.

"One of the things we found attractive about Quantum is the culture and how they attract the type of people who wouldn't necessarily come to Ford," Visintainer added. 

With its acquisition of Quantum Signal, Ford continues to form new alliances to assemble a team of uniquely qualified experts in software development, simulation and machine learning from all around the world, as it accelerates autonomous vehicle development.

Visintainer said that Quantum is dropping all its defense work so that it can focus entirely on helping Ford meet its 2021 deadline to deploy self-driving vehicles.

"The operating system they have for robots compliments some of the work we're doing on delivery robots," said Visintainer. "They're going to help the robot navigate through the world."

This technology could be used to remotely operate a driverless delivery van navigating a loading dock or a robot carrying a package to the front porch.

"We need to have partnerships and acquisitions to get us where we need to go," Visintainer added. "Quantum is the latest step in that direction."

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