Argo AI, the self-driving startup backed by Ford and Volkswagen, is shutting down. Employees were notified that an announcement would be made late in the day Wednesday. (The news was first reported by TechCrunch.)
The company, which was founded by veterans of Google and Uber’s self-driving car projects, has lost the financial support of Ford and VW, a source said. And according to TechCrunch, the company’s resources will be absorbed by both automakers. Argo is estimated to have around 2,000 employees, though it did announce a round of layoffs earlier this year. A spokesperson for Argo declined to comment.
Argo was founded in 2016 by Bryan Salesky, the former head of hardware development for Google’s autonomous vehicles (AVs), and Peter Rander, who previously served as an engineering lead for Uber’s self-driving branch. Ford injected $1 billion into the company in 2017, and Volkswagen followed up with a $2.6 billion investment in 2020.
Argo had laid off some employees earlier this year. The funding has allowed the company to build out its AV business in the US and overseas.
Argo AI is currently in the process of testing fully autonomous vehicles in Washington, DC, Miami, and Austin and planned on partnering with Lyft in those cities. It also teamed up with Walmart to deploy a driverless delivery service and was working toward its goal of launching an automated rideshare service with Volkswagen in Germany by 2025.
Ford has long touted Argo’s progress as crucial to the automaker’s overarching plans to launch a commercial robotaxi service. Earlier this year, Ford CEO Jim Farley congratulated Argo for removing safety drivers from its vehicles in Austin and Miami, two of the cities where the company tests its vehicles.
“Congratulations to our partners Argo AI!” Farley wrote in a LinkedIn post. “As we work to build and scale a fully autonomous commercial service, this milestone from Argo is a significant step forward in their technology development and the future of transportation!”
Several months later, when it was reported that Argo was laying off about 150 employees, a spokesperson called the company a “critical partner of our self-driving service, and we will continue to support them and work together on developing the self-driving technology that will power our self-driving service.”
But cracks were starting to show in these multibillion-dollar companies. Argo’s main rivals, Waymo and Cruise, had major leadership shake-ups. Valuations have dropped as timelines have stretched further and further out. Companies that went public by SPAC have seen their share price tumble. The costs have grown while revenues trickle in.
Argo came very close to merging with a SPAC, which stands for special acquisition company, even going so far as to choose JP Morgan Chase and Morgan Stanley to manage its most recent funding round. The company was said to be going public with a $7 billion valuation.
The challenge of creating commercially viable autonomous vehicles has turned out to be far more difficult than advocates for the technology anticipated five or six years ago. Creating a robust and safe self-driving system is not exactly an easy challenge. Full Level 5 autonomy is still at least several years away from becoming truly viable for the mass market.
To that end, Ford said in its earnings report that “the auto industry’s large-scale profitable commercialization of Level 4 advanced driver assistance systems will be further out than originally anticipated.”
Currently, Waymo is the only company with a revenue-generating robotaxi service, which runs around the clock in parts of suburban Phoenix. Cruise has launched a limited public robotaxi service in San Francisco, though it operates mainly at night when traffic is light.
Waymo is also preparing to offer its ride service in San Francisco and last week said it’s coming to Los Angeles. Zoox, a startup owned by Amazon, is also developing an electric robotaxi but hasn’t said when its service will launch.