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Bryan Salesky: VW is now betting billions on this anti-musk

The Argo AI boss and founder Bryan Salesky.

Argo AI

Bryan Salesky was sitting there in 2017, second from left, with excitement, when he, together with his co-founder Peter Rander and the Ford executive suite, revealed the partnership between his company Argo AI and the car manufacturer. Even back then, he was dressed in the small-checked light blue shirt, the collar of which protrudes from under a dark blue troyer that is always the same – a combination with which he still presents himself to the public today.

At that time, Ford got involved in the robot car startup Argo AI with a promise and a demand: The carmaker would invest one billion US dollars over a period of five years. Salesky and Co. would enable the first autonomous Ford cars in the coming year 2021.

When they announce the partnership, Salesky stumbles over the words he had written down on a piece of paper before the press conference. Back then he was reluctant to appear in public, and that has not changed to this day. And even if he still flaunts his shirt and sweater combination at his rare appearances, he is already scratching his personal fortune in the billions. Also thanks to the recent entry of another car giant – the VW Group.

The Wolfsburg-based company joined Argo AI last June, probably also driven by the chase they started on the Tesla, which is also from California. Because the company headed by Elon Musk has not only gained a foothold in the electromobility market on a large scale, but also in the field of autonomous driving. The first beta tests of the company’s fully self-driving software (FSD) have been running on public roads in the USA for a few days.

Volkswagen’s entry into the startup was worth 2.6 billion US dollars. But what do the Wolfsburg hope for from Argo boss Bryan Salesky?

A digression in California

The 39-year-old Salesky comes from a suburb of the US car city Detroit and moved to Pittsburgh, a four-hour drive away, to study. In 2007 at the private Carnegie Mellon University, among other things, he headed the software department of a winning team in the legendary autonomous car race “Darpa Urban Challenge”.

From 2011 he worked for Google, headed the hardware department of the robot car division, which is now known as Waymo. Five years later, however, he was drawn back to his home region, to the northwestern United States, to the Great Lakes of the country, the former center of North American big industry. He gained a foothold in Pittsburgh and founded the robot car startup Argo AI in 2016 together with his former Google boss Peter Rander.

Initially, the venture stayed afloat with smaller investments, until Ford stepped in with a billion US dollars in spring 2017 and thus secured almost forty percent of the company’s shares. A good three years later, the Volkswagen Group also secured almost 40 percent of the shares, but this time for 2.6 billion US dollars. The Wolfsburg-based company is hoping for the software that will control the first autonomous VW cars on the roads in this country in the not too distant future.

A lot of time that Ford and Volkswagen invest in the development of the technology and a lot of trust that the car makers have in the founder Salesky. He is by no means taking it lightly. His statements on the state of the art match the shirt-sweater combination and are more conspicuous for their modesty than big promises. In any case, Salesky’s counterpart Elon Musk is responsible for these in the industry, who already has completely self-driving cars, while Tesla technology is by no means fault-free.

“I will not experience level 5 during my lifetime”

The capabilities of autonomous vehicle software are divided into five different levels. A large proportion of the vehicles already sold today are equipped with level 3 functionalities, which include lane keeping and distance assistants and which can, for example, park and leave parking spaces independently. From level 4, the vehicle navigates the streets independently – however, a driver must be in the driver’s seat and be able to intervene in an emergency. From level 5 one speaks of complete automation. While Musk is promising Tesla fans Level 5 cars in the near future, Salesky said in the podcast “Merge Now” that he would probably not experience this level of automation in his lifetime.

With assessments like this, it is likely to be much closer to the development and innovation speed of the established carmakers than the e-car startups of Silicon Valley. “I’ve been working with car companies for 15 years and I know that we can’t dictate much,” he says, according to the “Handelsblatt”.

However, this joint work is also needed. Because without the carmaker behind his back, his company would be a chair with three legs and would not function on its own – that would require the car production of Ford and VW. The best possible result would only be guaranteed if software (the autonomous driving system) and hardware (the vehicle itself) were created together.

Such a development takes time. Time that Argo AI, VW and Ford can certainly afford. Because, at least in Europe, the automation of road traffic is not only tied to the speed of development of car manufacturers and software houses, but also to the legislature. And, as is well known, the mills of the regulatory organs grind slowly in Germany and our neighboring countries.

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