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Miami expansion caps 'amazing' first year for Pittsburgh self-driving startup Argo AI

Aaron Aupperlee
| Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2018, 2:39 p.m.
Ford and Argo AI are testing self-driving cars in Miami.
Courtesy Ford Motor Company
Ford and Argo AI are testing self-driving cars in Miami.
Pete Rander, president of Argo AI, stands with Sherif Marakby, Ford's vice president for autonomous vehicles and electrification, at an event launching Ford's self-driving tests in Miami. (Photo from Ford)
Pete Rander, president of Argo AI, stands with Sherif Marakby, Ford's vice president for autonomous vehicles and electrification, at an event launching Ford's self-driving tests in Miami. (Photo from Ford)
Ford and Argo AI are testing self-driving cars in Miami.
Courtesy Ford Motor Company
Ford and Argo AI are testing self-driving cars in Miami.
Ford and Argo AI are testing self-driving cars in Miami.
Courtesy Ford Motor Company
Ford and Argo AI are testing self-driving cars in Miami.

Miami won't be a spring break for the Pittsburgh self-driving car company Argo AI.

True, the startup won't have to navigate through hills and valleys or deal with ice and snow like it does here.

But Miami presents its own challenges and quirks.

“We're here to find them,” said Pete Rander, Argo's president and one of its founders.

Ford announced this week that it will partner with Argo AI to test self-driving vehicles in Miami and Miami Beach . It's the first time Ford and Argo have put their self-driving cars on the road far away from their homes near Detroit and Pittsburgh.

The expansion to Miami is a test of how quickly Argo's self-driving technology can map, learn and safely navigate a new city. It's a test of what will eventually have to happen if Ford hopes to roll out self-driving cars for services such as ride-sharing, public transportation and deliveries in cities across the country and around the world.

“We actually have to get used to this,” Rander said.

There are throngs of tourists who know little about the city's traffic patterns. Bicycles are everywhere, Rander said. So are traffic backups and congestion.

During one of his first drives — manual, not autonomous — in Miami, Rander saw a moped speed in between lines of cars stuck in traffic. It caught his eye the first time and quickly became a common sight.

The announcement of the partnership with Ford capped off a whirlwind first year for Argo and set in motion what Rander expects to be a busy second year.

“It's been an amazing ride so far,” Rander said.

Argo AI emerged from near obscurity in February 2017 when Ford announced its five-year, $1 billion investment. The startup featured self-driving all-stars at its reins.

Argo CEO Bryan Salesky has a degree from the University of Pittsburgh and worked at Carnegie Mellon University. He spent three years leading Google's self-driving car team. Rander, Vice President of Robotics Brent Browning and CFO Daniel Beaven were part of the team that launched Uber's self-driving car operations in Pittsburgh.

But Argo didn't even have a test car outfitted with sensors, cameras and LiDAR units when Ford made the investment, Rander said. Fast forward 12 months, and Argo cars — the company is already on its second generation — are all over Pittsburgh.

“That shows how far we've come,” Rander said.

The company grew like crazy in 2017, from a handful of employees at the beginning of 2017 to more than 250 people by the end of the year. Argo moved from one building to another in Pittsburgh and finally found a home as the anchor tenant in the Riverfront West building under construction in the 3 Crossings development in the Strip District. The company also has offices in Silicon Valley; Dearborn, Mich.; and New Jersey.

Ford wants to work through challenges faced in autonomous delivery services with its tests in Miami. Sherif Marakby, Ford's vice president for autonomous vehicles and electrification, wrote that Ford will work out how employees stock and send off a self-driving vehicle for deliveries, how customers will interact with the car to get their pizza or groceries, and what benefits self-driving could bring to people and cities.

Ford extended to Miami its partnership with Domino's to deliver pizza with self-driving cars and will soon start making deliveries with Postmates in self-driving cars. The cars will have human drivers to start as Ford works out kinks in how customers interact with the cars, Rander said.

Ford wants to launch a self-driving vehicle by 2021.

Ford and Argo are opening a maintenance and operations center in Miami, and Rander and others could spend more time on South Beach than in the Strip District.

But Argo isn't leaving Pittsburgh behind, Rander said.

“It's really an expansion,” Rander said. “It's a chance to share with the world, or at least another city ... what Pittsburgh is so excited about.”

Pittsburgh should be proud of the self-driving technology it incubated, Rander said, calling it Pittsburgh's newest export.

Aaron Aupperlee is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at aaupperlee@tribweb.com, 412-336-8448 or via Twitter @tinynotebook.

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