Argo AI and The autonomous vehicle developer backed by Ford and the VW Group this week unveiled an ecosystem of products and services designed to support commercial delivery and robotaxi operations.
The products — a list that includes fleet management software, data analytics, high-resolution mapping and cloud-based communication tools — extend far beyond the autonomous driving system that allows a vehicle to navigate city streets without a human driver behind the wheel.
Together, they send a unique message to companies: Argo is open for business.
The Argo product line is extensive and designed for taxi bots as well as last mile and middle mile delivery services. And while Argo doesn’t say exactly which companies it’s targeting or with which it has reached agreements, it is interested in the consumer packaged goods and healthcare industries, according to the company.
“These systems need to be built in a way that they can communicate what companies need and help solve that,” Argo CTO and Executive Vice President of Product Development Brett Browning said in a recent interview. “And as great as technology sounds, for most business owners it is a means to an end. It is more about, what can I do with this system? How do I connect it? How can I solve any of my business needs?”
It’s no secret that Argo, a startup founded in 2016 by Bryan Salesky and Pete Rander, is developing and testing its own automated driving system.
The company’s self-driving Ford Fusion vehicles, and now Ford Escape Hybrids, can be seen testing on public roads in Austin, Detroit Miami, Palo Alto and Pittsburgh, where it is headquartered. In the European Union, Argo uses the all-electric Volkswagen ID Buzz engine for test programs in Hamburg and Munich. Argo also has several pilot programs running in Austin, Miami and Pittsburgh with Lyft, Walmart, and 412 Food Rescue.
What has been less clear, until now, is exactly what other puzzling islands can offer to convert these pilots into long-term customers or attract new ones.
Argo’s central product, as one might expect, is a self-driving system that combines software and hardware including its lidar sensor, high-resolution maps and a back-end cloud-based tool called the Hub that supports AVs when they’re in the field — and when they come back.
The Hub, a collection of APIs and web tools, allows a fleet operator or company to run a checklist to make sure everything is running on the AV before it’s deployed on public roads. can also Send real-time updates to the vehicle about road changes or provide remote guidance or troubleshooting if the AV needs assistance.
“On the service operations side, people have a lot of current tools that let them know if they need to change tires, or not,” Browning said. “But what about the more complex things that happen inside a self-driving system?” Do they have the things that connect So how do they know, sometimes these compounds need to be calibrated?
Argo has also developed some other tools like fleet and operations management software which are clearly aimed at delivery services.
The gateway to all of these products, whether the company uses all or some of them, is a tool that the company has flagged as Argo Connect. This is a set of application programming interfaces (or APIs) that companies can add to their existing operations software. For example, Lyft may connect Connect to its passenger routing app so that you can choose the times and locations you may want to dispatch autonomous vehicles on its network. Or the catering company may add Connect to its existing programs to dispatch a driverless delivery vehicle when needed.
These products and services are designed to work together. However, there are a few eclectic options, depending on the company’s needs, Browning said.
In the early days of AV development — that period between 2013 and 2018 when startups like mushrooms popped up after the rain — a lot of energy was directed toward proving the vehicle could successfully drive itself around obstacles on a closed track, and later on public roads.
These in-person or video-streamed demos were popular. Rarely have been mentioned all the required back-end parts that would make an autonomous driving system compelling for an e-commerce, logistics, retailer or carrier.
This is changing as few of the companies that survived and even grew after a period of consolidation turned attention to how to make money from autonomous vehicle technology. With over 2,000 employees, Argo (and many other similarly sized AV companies) can only stay for so long in the dreaded ex-revenue (or collaboration revenue) category. And while Argo has business partnerships with Lyft and Walmart — which means it receives revenue for its services — it is keen to ramp up them.
The company’s public introduction of its product line shows greater ambitions to attract a diverse group of customers along with two big names that Ford and VW are backing.
Some customers may want the full range of products – all of which are used in Argo’s fleet of 150 vehicles today. Others, Browning says, may not want certain tools. For example, he added, Ford and VW might not need car maintenance tools but might want to have the data piece.
“At some point, there may be a company that wants Argo to actually run the process similar to what we do today for our development fleet,” he said. “And so cool, we can go ahead and do it. The goal is to enable us to do any of those flexibly.”