In February 2017, Ford's billion-dollar investment into Argo AI, a little-known startup run by former Google and Uber executives, seemed to herald the era of self-driving cars.
"We think that automation is going to define the vehicle in the next decade," Mark Fields, Ford's CEO at the time, said, adding that it was Ford's intention to launch a Level 4 (fully self-driving) car in 2021. "The investment positions Ford for its autonomous future."
"When we look back on this day, it's going to be a very important milestone on our road to an autonomous future for Ford," Fields said.
In July 2019, Volkswagen Group jumped in, investing a total of $2.6 billion into Argo AI, including $1 billion in cash, in a transaction that valued Argo at more than $7 billion. Argo AI would take over all of VW's self-driving operations and open a research center in Europe.
But this October, Ford poured cold water on those dreams, announcing it and VW would wind down Argo AI at a loss, with the 2021 deadline having come and gone.
CEO Jim Farley said the reason was simple: "It's estimated that more than $100 billion has been invested in the promise of Level 4 autonomy," he told investors on Ford's third-quarter earnings call. "And yet no one has defined a profitable business at scale."
The shuttering of Argo AI was portrayed as the latest disaster for autonomous-vehicle development – Reuters called it "the death knell for driverless car hype" – but those billions of dollars invested in tech for autonomous robo-taxis are now trickling down to improving driver-assistance features on cars that can be bought today, experts, automakers and suppliers say.
ADAS, or advanced driver-assistance systems, include popular safety and convenience features such as adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping and automatic emergency braking.
"A lot of the strategies have been to take all the amazing work that's going into AV [autonomous vehicles] but bring it to market sooner, and that means taking a more methodical approach," Danny Shapiro, vice president Automotive at Nvidia, said in an interview.