Argo AI seems to be one of the top autonomous driving startups out there. It has significant backing from Ford and Volkswagen. Their investments into the company have totaled $1 billion and $2.6 billion, respectively. Last I checked, top global automakers don’t drop a few billion dollars on a company without some serious due diligence and hope that it will pay off.
As I’ve said before, though, there are a couple of fundamentally different approaches to autonomous driving development, and there’s no guarantee either of them will get us to high-volume robotaxis. Or they both could.
Tesla is focused purely on vision (cameras) and the AI software that does the hard work of acting like humans but better. Others, like Waymo and Cruise and Argo AI, are convinced that lidar is a critical component. On that topic, Argo AI may have just taken a significant jump forward. This is how the company framed the news in its headline: “Breakthrough New Lidar Technology Gives Argo AI the Edge in Autonomous Delivery and Ride-Hail Services.”
A key is that the new lidar can sense objects 400 meters away, a ~25% improvement over other lidar tech. Not too shabby. Naturally, the better you can sense the environment around you, including up to 400 meters around you, the better. To put it simply, that improvement could be what separates Argo AI and its backers from the crowd.
On the other hand, a number of people (i.e., those who think Tesla has the best approach) have pointed out that the key factor that will determine success or failure is intelligence, and it’s all about intelligence at this point. Improve cameras, sensors, radars, or lidars all you want, it doesn’t matter if your AI is stupid. (Note: I’m not claiming Argo AI’s AI is stupid — I have no idea how smart or stupid it is.) Here are a few tweets on this matter:
That’s the critics’ response. I find myself leaning toward that side of the bet, but I also want to reiterate that no one really knows who is going to come out on top in this arena. Also, it appears that the Argo AI team does think it’s on the cusp of commercialization.
In general, the CEOs of the various players appear convinced in their approaches. Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s opinion on Tesla’s leadership is well known, and Waymo execs get vocal in their own convictions as well.
On Argo AI’s side, they plan to launch commercial robotaxi service in 2022 — next year. That’s in collaboration with Ford. (Volkswagen Group plans to implement Argo AI tech later in the decade.)
The new lidar is critical to that 2022 target. “It really unlocks our ability to operate safely on highways and to then expand to entire metropolitan areas,” Bryan Salesky, Argo’s CEO and cofounder, told Bloomberg. The extended range of the new lidar system also might have opened up the ability for robotaxis to operate at 65+ mph.
Argo AI’s press release added: “With the introduction of Argo Lidar, the global self-driving technology company Argo AI has overcome the limitations preventing most competitors from commercializing autonomous delivery and ride-hail services. By detecting the most difficult-to-see objects from farther away and with more precision, the Argo Self-Driving System (SDS) is capable of 360-degrees awareness day or night and can safely drive on busy city streets, suburban neighborhoods, and now at highway speeds. These capabilities are essential for enabling services that will bring the promise of autonomous vehicles to life for millions of people.”
That’s not a soft statement. That’s Argo AI basically saying, “We solved the puzzle! And we did it first!”
“This breakthrough in autonomous vehicle technology was enabled by Argo’s 2017 acquisition of a company developing an innovative form of long range lidar. The result is a sensor believed to be the industry’s longest-distance sensing range capability of 400 meters, with dark-object detection for safe highway driving. Argo Lidar also offers ultra-high resolution perception, providing the photorealistic imaging required to identify small objects for safe operation on complex city streets.”
So, yes, this tech has been getting developed and refined by Argo AI since 2017. That implies that it has gotten the new lidar to a level that is ready for use in a commercialized product at a mass scale.
“Argo Lidar takes us to a whole new level of self-driving technology, unlocking our ability to power both delivery and ride-hail services,” said Bryan Salesky, founder and CEO of Argo AI. “The Argo Self-Driving System delivers the safety, scale and service experience that businesses want and their customers demand, especially coming out of the pandemic.”
We’ll see if this is true, but I think it’s worth emphasizing that it would probably be a stupid idea to hype a product this much if you weren’t truly ready to bring it to market. I don’t take Salesky as a stupid person, and I also don’t take him as someone who over-enthusiastically jumps to conclusions that are more optimistic than realistic.
If the tech is ready, though, why is Volkswagen waiting till mid-decade to implement it? First of all, cars have to be designed to include hardware well in advance of production or deliveries. Perhaps Volkswagen needs more time for vehicle development. Also, it’s common advice to not be the first to test out a new technology/commercial product. Maybe Volkswagen is going to see how the launch with Ford goes and then determine its timeline.
Something I have been wondering is whether systems like this one will be used for commercial service in various cities and metro areas gradually — basically, achieving L4 autonomy — if it can beat more general Tesla AI/FSD to market. Tesla may have a much better generic system, once it’s ready, but solving the issues for L4 capability in some major cities in 2022 would be a dramatic step forward. We shall see.
To close, here’s more from Argo AI this week regarding the news:
Ready to Scale
The Argo SDS capabilities, combined with the company’s fleet dispatch infrastructure and operations experience, translate into clear advantages when it comes to commercialization:
- Safe operations in cities, suburbs, and on highways enables connections from warehouses to urban and suburban routes for middle- and last-mile delivery, or service to the most in-demand ride-hailing routes to and from airports;
- Scaled operations based on extensive testing and development in six U.S. cities, with additional cities coming online this year, as well as expansion into Europe;
- Service experience, including address-to-address routing within urban and suburban areas of operation, maximizing effectiveness for deliveries or commuters.
Through deep collaboration with automotive partners Ford Motor Company and Volkswagen Group in the technology integration and development of high-quality, commercial-grade self-driving vehicles, Argo can meet the durability requirements for maximizing commercial fleet uptime and improving operations and customer satisfaction.
“We have unparalleled autonomous driving technology and operations capabilities,” continues Salesky. “Proving out these abilities every day, across six cities from our nation’s capital to Miami to Silicon Valley, we are ready to enable the next phase of growth for delivery, retail, and ride-sharing partners.”
Alongside custom-designed sensors and high-performance computing, Argo Lidar is the centerpiece of the Argo SDS. It is designed to handle the most complex aspects of human driving, such as:
- Seeing the darkest of black-painted vehicles—those that reflect less than 1% of light even at long range and in the pitch blackness of night
- Safely navigating left-hand turns onto roads with oncoming high-speed traffic by utilizing a 360° field of view
- Managing instant transitions from darkness to bright light, such as when entering and leaving a tunnel, which often temporarily blind human drivers
- Distinguishing small, moving objects such as animals from vegetation and static objects
The innovation behind Argo Lidar is known as “Geiger-mode” sensing. Argo AI’s proprietary Geiger-mode lidar has the ability to detect the smallest particle of light—a single photon—and is key to sensing objects with low reflectivity. This, combined with higher-wavelength operation above 1400 nanometers, gives Argo Lidar its unique capabilities, including longer-range, higher-resolution, lower-reflectivity detection and full 360° field of view—all from a single sensor.
The Argo AI Hardware Development team is working with a highly experienced contract manufacturer for series production of the new lidar sensor. The first batch of Argo Lidar sensors is already supporting on-road testing of Argo’s self-driving test vehicle fleet. Soon, volume production plans with Ford and Volkswagen Group will lead to the widespread commercialization of autonomous delivery and ride hail services.