Argo AI CEO Bryan Salesky on a new partnership with Lyft and setting realistic expectations for self-driving cars
Today I’m talking to Bryan Salesky, the co-founder and CEO of Argo AI, a startup that’s trying to build the tech stack for self-driving cars. Argo was founded in 2016, but there’s some solid foundations there: Bryan and his team were veterans of Google’s and Uber’s self-driving groups, and they have major investments from Ford and Volkswagen.
Bryan is actually one of my favorite people to talk to in the car industry — he’s a podcaster himself with a show called the No Parking Podcast, and he’s unusually direct for a tech CEO about what technology can and can’t do, and on what timeframe. He thinks self-driving cars will be “ready when [they’re] ready.” You might compare that to Elon Musk, who in 2019 promised a fleet of 1 million Tesla robotaxis on the streets by the end of 2020.
It’s August 2021, and while that hasn’t happened, Argo has launched a small fleet of robotaxis in Miami and Austin in partnership with Lyft. There are still safety drivers in the cars, but it’s another small step toward self driving in the US — which, as Bryan points out, is actually trailing behind other countries.
I wanted to talk to Bryan about his partnership with Lyft, but I also wanted to know if the pandemic accelerated any of his investment or development. And, of course, I had to ask about 5G. Is 5G enabling any of Argo’s current self-driving technology? His answer might surprise you… unless you’re a regular listener of this show — then it won’t surprise you one bit.
Bryan Salesky, you’re the CEO of Argo AI, welcome to Decoder.
Thanks, good to be here.
I spoke to you in February of 2020 on The Vergecast, and then the whole world flipped over, but I’m glad to have you back on Decoder. I feel like maybe the frame of our conversation is a little different — Argo makes self-driving hardware and software for cars.
And I’m curious, this past year there’s been just a lot of interest in having computers do more for us. You see all the big tech companies are doing better than ever. Did the pandemic change the velocity or direction of self-driving?
For us it didn’t really change the direction. You’re right though, when I went to New York, I didn’t realize that would be like my last normal — pre-COVID — business trip. Actually, I was back to New York last week and it was neat to see the streets busy again. In fact, it seems like people don’t want to use the subway right now, so it seems like the surface streets are actually even busier than they had been.
But [the pandemic] did not really change the direction. I think there is more urgency to get this technology out there. The convenience and the ability to have a private ride — to have the car take you somewhere and not be with anybody else in the car — seems like that would be a pretty good value proposition right now as people are getting more comfortable with being around people again.
I think on the goods delivery front we’ve seen a huge uptick in change in customer habits that we knew was happening, but it seems like COVID just really accelerated it, right? It’s kind of now an expectation among customers that there’s a delivery option for most retail businesses. We knew that was always the case. But it just seems like all of this has been accelerated.
Yeah, that’s why I wanted to start there. I have a lot of questions about Argo, and you have some news that we should discuss, but we’ve just seen so many technology products get uptake in a way that people predicted would take five years.
Zoom is the canonical example of the pandemic. Self-driving is one of those things where it’s connected to everything from the future of work — you’re gonna live farther away, and you’ll have a self-driving car, and it will tootle you into the city whenever you need to go to a city, but mostly you’re gonna telecommute and work, live wherever you wanna live — [to] package delivery, e-commerce.
The cost of goods delivery is a big deal. We’ve heard about this in the self-driving context for years and years and years. But it seems like you can’t make the products innovate any faster. Even though there’s all this pressure to get there, you’re still kind of on the same cadence as you were before?
Yeah, I think that’s true. We’re obviously working as quickly as we can because we know that this has real convenience, affordability, and safety benefits. But at the end of the day, it’s ready when it’s ready and there’s a process that has to be followed. It’s a safety-critical product as much as it is a fun and exciting product that folks will really want to use. I think it’s good to know that when we are ready and when we do start scaling out that there’s a real market for this.
Right now there are a lot of small businesses wondering, “Wait a second, how do I kinda get my piece of the e-commerce thing that’s happening?” And part of what they struggle with is, “How do I get my products from A to B, and to the customer’s doorstep as efficiently as some of the giant retail brands?” What’s cool about self-driving tech is that it has the promise to provide that A to B delivery efficiently, and give them a chance to compete.
And, nothing I say on this podcast will ever happen overnight, but I think this is where it’s going, and the fact that we can give small businesses more of an equal footing at some point, is interesting.
So let’s talk about Argo; how many people work there?
I think we’re approaching 1,400 now.
And how is that structured?
We have engineering offices here in the US, as well as in Munich, Germany. We have a fairly large workforce across our test cities that help us test and operate the vehicles, as well as a sizable product development engineering workforce that builds the technology.
You make hardware and software that allows cars to drive themselves. But I was just looking at your website, and your website’s really interesting. It has your podcast on it, your company values, the description of how Argo works, but it doesn’t name your technology. Does the Argo tech stack have a name that you use to describe itself?
We don’t have a name for it yet, and I think that’s some more of what you’ll see in the coming year as we start to get closer to launching. We do a lot of explaining around self-driving, and that’s what the podcast is for, that’s why we have groundtruthautonomy.com. These are properties to help folks that see our cars in cities today and they wanna know more: “Why are you here?” “What are you doing?” “What’s the benefit?”
That’s a lot of what we focus on at the moment. At the end of the day, what we are is a platform that enables lower-cost and safer mobility, and it has the potential to move not just people, but also goods. And, really, we have an extensive footprint, probably larger than any other AV developer at this point. We’re in seven cities and counting, and we’re really testing in some of the hardest areas in the country. Whether it be in the core of Miami, Austin, DC.
It’s been a great learning experience and it’s also given us an advantage. We have a lot of really important and valuable data in those cities now that helps us build the self-driving tech stack. Where it’s all going, though, is it’s a platform. And we’re working on a number of vehicles, with both Ford and Volkswagen, and [our platform] will enable those vehicles to do real work in these major cities across the world.
Ford and Volkswagen are obviously gigantic car companies. They’re good at things like alloy wheels and leather seats and all the other things that go into making cars. They make cars. You don’t make cars. What is the Argo product? Where does it begin and end?
The product is really, at its core, a whole lot of software that runs on some pretty specialized hardware, that connects to a car in a safe way. And I would say those car companies do a lot more than just make leather seats and alloy wheels — I don’t know if you’re setting me up here, but the car companies are increasingly becoming software companies in their own right. If you look at the car as a digital device, there’s actually an API, and a really important one that we interface with to be able to control basic things like steering and braking, and being able to do that in a safe and secure way is actually not trivial.
So, heavy respect for what they do, and working in concert with the automaker makes sure that those interfaces are done right and in a secure and safe way.
So they put a specialized computer in their car, it runs your software. Do you have any hardware demands? Or is there a set of sensors that you require? Is there stuff that you make, or is it off-the-shelf? How does that part work?
It’s sort of an amalgamation of things. So, they certainly have computing that their control software operates on. We have something that almost looks like a mini data center in the car that’s able to process data from sensors that are positioned all around it. So the car is able to see through sensors that we make as well as buy — it’s able to see 360 degrees around it, 400 meters away, day, night, and is able to pick up on things that, I would venture to say, most human drivers don’t even necessarily see or notice.
So, many times a second, the car is reading that information and making decisions about how to navigate through the street. People ask me all the time, “Well, how is it any different than how a human thinks about things?” Well, the difference is a human’s sort of picking the top two or three things that are relevant at the time. And if they make a mistake in that judgment, and they pick the wrong thing to focus on, or if they’re distracted, typically that’s when collisions happen, right?
The advantage with self-driving tech is that our software stack can reason about literally thousands of objects at the same time, and be tracking each individual bike, pedestrian, and car that’s in a busy surface street, and be able to extrapolate not just what are they doing now, but what are they going to be doing several seconds in the future. It doesn’t get tired, it doesn’t get distracted, it’s always learning and improving. And this is where the safety proposition comes from.
It’s funny that you use that set of phrases to describe a safety proposition. Because that is also the description of the Terminator. It doesn’t get tired, it won’t ever give up. Like, it’s the same.
I think that that movie is more about self-awareness, like being completely freely autonomous in the world, and that’s not what we’re talking about with Argo. These vehicles follow a set of very strict rules and are highly supervised, this is not like generalized, artificial intelligence. This is a highly skilled device for doing sort of one thing and one thing really, really well.
The last time we talked, you had this great line about how a self-driving car would perceive and react to the world around it. And you were like, “It turns out the rules are encoded all around us. It’s just traffic regulations. And there’s signs and roads and we just have to understand it, and the car will know how to drive in any city that it’s in.”
I feel like it’s been a winding journey. Has that proven out? Is that still how you see it? Or do you need more and better structured map data about the world around you, to make self-driving happen?
Yeah, I don’t immediately remember what I said in that regard. You certainly need to know those rules, but our maps really encode a lot more than just what is encoded in a street sign. We make notes around what the behaviors you would expect at certain intersections. For example, at certain peak times it is socially acceptable, in the heart of a city, to do what’s called blocking the box, or basically pulling into the intersection in order to get all the way through. And if you don’t do that, you’re never going to get a turn.
There are other places where, if you do that, you’re going to get honked at and run off the road. So we do encode certain contextual information so that we can act as naturally as possible with what the norms are in that local area. That is a painstaking process, but certainly something we’ve learned is important for people to accept it.
It’s one of these unique products in that the customer is not just the rider in the car, the customer is actually the bike that’s riding next to us, the pedestrian that’s crossing in front of the vehicle. The customer is really the environment around us in addition to whatever work the vehicle is doing at the time. It all matters, for a community to be okay with having self-driving cars.
It feels like we started 10 years ago with the idea that self-driving cars are going to change the world. And every company, and every executive I talk to working on the problem, somewhat naturally, and I think extremely understandably, developed a much more nuanced appreciation of the problem.
And ideas like, “All I need to do is OCR the local traffic manual — that a 15-year-old kid has to learn to get their driver’s license — and tell a computer to do it, and we’re off and running” turned into “Oh, there’s a bunch of norms in various cities that we need to encode in a semantic way, into the actual maps of the car.”
That’s a new kind of understanding, I think, for the industry. At the same time, it feels like the dream of self-driving cars has gotten much farther away.
I don’t know if that concept is new. I think something that we’ve understood over the last decade, is that it isn’t enough to just see and understand the world, you also have to predict what it’s going to do. If things are in motion, you have to operate in and among other human drivers. And you don’t want to be moving in an overly robotic way where the car is gonna be constantly starting and stopping, and moving left and right in ways that an external observer would say, “What the heck is this thing doing?”
I started doing robotics in like 2004 or 2005, in that neighborhood. And I remember one of the first assignments I had, building a simulator. Ok, so we were at the whiteboard and very little prior art existed, in the application we were in. And it was like, “All right, let’s start making a list of all the things that we’re gonna encounter in the world.” And I’m new to this industry. I’m staring at the whiteboard with a marker, and I’m looking at a guy that’s been doing this for 15 years, and I thought to myself, “Is this really the starting point?”
- BYD sold 61,409 new energy vehicles in August, more than four times the amount sold a year ago.
- BYD is one of the biggest electric vehicle makers in China but a number of start-ups including Nio, Li Auto and Xpeng, have looked to challenge it.
- The auto industry globally has been battling with two major issues — the continuing pandemic and a shortage of semiconductors that go into cars.
GUANGZHOU, China — BYD sold 61,409 new energy vehicles in August, more than four times the amount sold a year ago, as demand for electric cars continues to rise in the world’s largest auto market.
That figure was nearly evenly split between sales of battery electric vehicles and so-called plug-in hybrids.
It was also a rise from the 50,492 cars sold in July. BYD shares rose 5.5% in morning trade in Hong Kong.
BYD, which is backed by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, is one of the biggest electric vehicle makers in China. But a number of start-ups including Nio, Li Auto and XPeng have looked to challenge it. Still, these three are smaller at the moment and all delivered under 10,000 cars in August.
BYD’s figures focus on sales volumes while Nio, Li Auto and XPeng released delivery numbers, so the comparison is not like-for-like, but it does indicate the scale of the respective companies.
The auto industry globally has been battling with two major issues — the continuing pandemic and a shortage of semiconductors that go into cars.
BYD did not provide any commentary around the August numbers. But in its half year results released last month, the company said “profitability is affected to some extent by factors including rising prices of raw materials such as bulk commodities.”
Despite the issues affecting the auto industry, demand for electric vehicles continues to climb in China, as the government pushes development of the sector.
China is expected to sell 1.7 million new energy vehicles in the first eight months of this year, a rise from 600,000 cars in the same period of 2020, according to a Reuters report of comments from the vice minster of China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology made on Saturday.
Tesla CEO Elon Musk on Thursday unveiled a humanoid robot called the Tesla Bot that runs on the same AI used by Tesla’s fleet of autonomous vehicles. A functioning version of the robot didn’t make an appearance during Musk’s reveal, though a slightly bizarre dance by a performer dressed like a Tesla Bot did.
The unexpected reveal came at the end ofpresentation, with Musk providing few details about the slightly creepy, Slenderman-like robot beyond a few PowerPoint slides. The 5-foot-8-inch robot is expected to weigh in at 125 pounds and be built from “lightweight materials,” he said.
Its head will be kitted out with the autopilot cameras used by Tesla’s vehicles to sense the environment and will contain a screen to display information. Internally, it will be operating via.
“It’s intended to be friendly,” Musk joked, “and navigate through a world built for humans.”
The robot’s appearance came after a 90-minute presentation detailing some of the artificial intelligence upgrades driving Tesla’s electric vehicles, including the Dojo supercomputer, which helps train cars to navigate city streets without human assistance. “It makes sense to put that onto humanoid form,” Musk said.
Three slides detailed the robot’s proposed specifications, and Musk made sure he pointed out that you could both outrun the Tesla Bot and “overpower” it. He has, in the past,and warned of the risks AI might pose — I guess if they’re your incredibly slow, easy-to-overpower robots, the dangers are reduced.
“We should be worried about AI,” Musk reiterated during a question and answer session after the presentation. “What we’re trying to do here at Tesla is make useful AI that people love and is … unequivocally good.”
One particular slide said the Tesla Bot would eliminate “dangerous, repetitive, boring tasks,” and Musk provided an example, suggesting the robot could be told to “go to the store and get … the following groceries.” Not that such a task is particularly dangerous, but you might find it repetitive and boring.
Musk, prone to making bold statements about the future, riffed a little on how he envisions Tesla Bot changing the future of work, too. “This, I think, will be quite profound,” he said. “Essentially, in the future, physical work will be a choice. If you want to do it, you can, but you won’t need to do it.”
Source : https://www.cnet.com/news/elon-musk-unveils-tesla-bot-a-humanoid-robot-utilizing-vehicle-ai/
See dozens of EV models compared by weight.
Today we will take a look at the weight of electric cars, which usually are much heavier than their conventional counterparts due to the battery packs – the heaviest single part.
The data for dozens of models was provided by Bjørn Nyland, who measures the car’s weight by the way of general reviews. As far as we know, in all cases, the weight includes the driver’s weight. In the video above, we can see an example of such a measure for the Hyundai Ioniq 5.
The heaviest car on the list of almost 70 EVs is the Mercedes-Benz EQV luxury passenger van, which is not far from 3,000 kg. The Audi e-tron 55 SUV is at 2,720 kg, followed by another premium SUV – the Mercedes-Benz EQC with 2,620 kg.
Overall, well over a third of the EVs tested weigh more than 2,000 kg, and thus the average was inflated to almost 1,940 kg. There are only 7 models below 1,500 kg, while more than half of the models are between 1,500 and 2,000 kg.
That’s a big issue for electric cars, because the heavier the car, the less efficient it is, which directly affects the range. Not only that, the car is more expensive as it must be equipped with more powerful brakes, suspension, wheels and tires that happen to last less. In general, a heavier car is also less environmentally friendly.
The chart below illustrates the weight of EVs and, by the way, reveals how big of a potential for improvements there is. One one hand – higher energy-dense batteries would be welcome, but there are also other options like the cell-to-pack and structural battery packs that could make a big difference in the future.
Across its long and storied history, Mercedes-Benz has repeatedly proven itself to be a marque capable of doing lots of different types of car extremely well. From low-slung, sporty convertibles to compact city cars of unparalleled luxury, there is hardly a shape of four-wheeled thing that Merc hasn’t successfully taken swing at. But there has never been so much as a shadow of doubt as to which type of car Mercedes does best.
Mercedes EQS 450
The three-pointed star’s bread and butter has always been the large, ultra-luxury sedan. You know, the sort of car you’re as likely to find the owner sitting in the back of – reading a copy of the Financial Times or cheerfully ordering a nuclear strike – than at the wheel of.
This is a large part of the reason why the all-new EQS is such a big deal. Just as the VW ID.3 is pitched as the spiritual successor to the ubiquitous Golf, the EQS is burdened with eventually taking the reins from the S Class – a car that has dominated its segment for a half century. No pressure.
The other thing that makes the EQS such a honking great big deal is the bespoke EV architecture upon which it is constructed – a first for Mercedes. And with all respect to the EQC and EQA (the former a car I really quite like), the first ground-up EV always feels like the moment a legacy car maker gets serious about electrification.
So, what does the EQS have up its sleeves to help it replace the greatest wafter that ever wafted? Well, as you’d very much hope, the level of refinement is unmatched in any EV on the road today. An e-tron GT probably comes closest, but the quality of materials used in the EQS cabin is several cuts above.
The ride is nothing short of sublime – eerily silent, arrestingly supple. Frankly, even if the suspension components were made of wood, the seats alone would make it one of the comfiest cars on the road.
But what truly sets the EQS apart from its rivals, what really makes it feel like a worthy successor to the almighty S Class, is the technology on display. For decades now, flagship Mercs have showcased the tech of tomorrow and introduced features that, years later, go on to become standard equipment on entry-level vehicles.
It’s hard to envisage a 2.5-square-meter “hyperscreen” appearing on a cheap econobox any time soon (or ever, for that matter), but the brilliant augmented reality windscreen? The eye-tracking system that ensures the driver is sufficiently awake and alert? The voice command system that ACTUALLY WORKS? A decade or so from now, these will be as common as windscreen wipers.
A very special car then, and a fitting sequel to the S Class it will ultimately replace. But a perfect luxury car? Not quite. Check out the video below for our full review of the Mercedes EQS.
Source : https://www.cnbc.com/2021/08/18/bmw-secures-funding-for-ev-battery-aiming-to-rival-traditional-engine.html
Zambian president-elect Hakainde Hichilema won a landslide victory in the country’s election last week, beating the incumbent, Edgar Lungu. Hichilema’s plan is to ramp up mining in particular to jump-start Zambia’s economy – and provide the rapidly growing electric vehicle battery industry with crucial cobalt and copper.
Cobalt and copper
Zambia is the world’s sixth-largest producer of copper, and cobalt is a byproduct of copper (and nickel) mining. Most of the world’s cobalt comes from the copper belt, which runs through the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and Zambia.
The Times in the UK writes:
In his acceptance speech on Monday, [Hichilema] pledged major structural and policy changes in all sectors but particularly mining. Zambia is the second largest copper producer in Africa but it also has large reserves of the minor metal, cobalt – a crucial element in lithium car batteries used to power the new generation of carbon-free electric vehicles.
Electric car producers such as Tesla are stepping up production to meet demand. Mining analysts say alternatives to cobalt are limited and unlikely to be sufficient to prevent a global deficit. The other global supplier is Democratic Republic of Congo, which borders Zambia’s northwestern copper belt, but the use of child miners and other human rights issues deters buyers.
Unlike Congo, Zambia has the capacity to refine cobalt on a large scale for use in battery manufacturing. During the campaign Hichilema pledged to revive the country’s refining capability, which he said had been run into the ground by the previous administration.
“It will be an enormous task but it will be done,” he said.
Further, Kopo Mapila, a principal adviser for mining giant Rio Tinto, published an op-ed titled “Copper Can Save Zambia” on August 1 for Chatham House, aka the Royal Institute of International Affairs, an independent policy institute based in London. He writes:
As Africa’s second largest producer of copper, Zambia has seen the demand for the metal rise. Its role as a critical mineral in the climate race to net zero emissions means this upward trajectory is expected to continue as nations and multinational companies scramble to move away from fossil fuel energy.
New technologies such as electric vehicles are driving demand for critical minerals – mainly nickel, lithium, cobalt, and copper. Copper is also a core mineral for solar and wind energy technologies.
Zambia’s history of regulatory oscillation and its political strong-arming of the mining sector, means that any changes to mining legislation will need to be managed delicately. If done correctly, the country could turn exploration activity into long-term capital investments, jobs, and economic growth.
Zambia should seek third-party technical support from a trusted partner. Madagascar is currently undergoing a mining code review with the support of the World Bank, which is now playing the role of an ‘honest broker’ between the government and industry.
If Zambia’s new president, a businessman, can successfully lead his country in a movement to ethically and effectively mine cobalt and copper, it’s going to be a win for Zambia, a win for the electric vehicle industry, and a win for the environment as we look to cut fossil fuel emissions on a global scale.
We’ll keep an eye on this new administration and mining developments in the southern African country.