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073019-ford-robot-van.png Photo: Ford Motor Co.

Ford acquires defense contractor to get robot rides on the road

Ford just acquired Quantum Signal AI, a firm working with the U.S. military on remote-controlled sentinel robots.

By Keith Naughton

(Bloomberg) — As Ford Motor Co. bears down on a self-imposed deadline to field driverless delivery vehicles and robotaxis in two years, the automaker has acquired a small defense contractor whose experience could help get auto-piloted cars on the road.

This month, Ford paid an undisclosed sum to acquire Quantum Signal AI, a 40-member team of roboticists operating out of a decommissioned 1930s-era high school in Saline, MI, just up the road from the University of Michigan. The 20-year-old firm has experience working with the U.S. military on sniper simulations and remote-controlled sentinel robots.

Ford sees those skills as a perfect fit for the unpredictable and often chaotic world its autonomous vehicles will need to navigate with its promised self-driving business in multiple U.S. cities. It’s hoping Quantum Signal will help it avoid potholes that have delayed a robotaxi service by General Motors Co.’s Cruise unit and limited the range of Alphabet Inc. affiliate Waymo’s autonomous ride-hailing operations.

“The No. 1 priority is 2021, it’s all about getting that done,” Randy Visintainer, chief technology officer of Ford’s autonomous vehicle unit, said in an interview. “When we first set that target, we knew this was a very, very hard problem and we weren’t going to be able to do it alone.”

Quantum’s simulation and robotics experts will join forces with Argo AI, Ford’s self-driving partner, and Ford’s own researchers, Visintainer said.

Mixed track record

Ford turbocharged its autonomous ambitions earlier this month by forming a new alliance with Volkswagen AG, the world’s largest automaker, to develop self-driving cars. VW agreed to contribute $2.6 billion to Argo, giving that autonomous startup a $7 billion valuation. The move has vaulted Ford and VW into the pantheon of self-driving leaders along with Waymo and GM Cruise.

Yet, Ford’s track record with tech acquisitions is mixed. Last week, Ford wrote down nearly the entire $182 million investment it made in Pivotal Software, a cloud computing startup, and earlier this year it shut down Chariot, a ride-hailing shuttle service it acquired in 2016 for $65 million.

Visintainer insists this acquisition will be different because Quantum has a clear mission to create simulations and robotic controls that will guide Ford’s robotaxis and self-driving delivery vehicles. “We know exactly where they’re going to fit into our business and how they’re going to help us move our business forward,” Visintainer said. “They’re not a startup; they’re an established company with a proven track record. We already have growth plans for them.”

Those plans call for Ford to leave Quantum Signal alone for the most part. Ford said it won’t change the company’s name and isn’t making Quantum staffers vacate their vintage high school, where they store equipment in old student lockers that line the hallways and have been known to use the gymnasium to conduct field tests. The small company will still operate independently, with its own human resources department, and continue to be run by co-founder Mitchell Rohde.

“One of the things we found attractive about Quantum is the culture and how they attract the type of people who wouldn’t necessarily come to Ford,” Visintainer said. “We said, ‘This would be a really good fit for the company, but they’d be a really good fit being Quantum, not being Ford.’”

Moose-tracking robots

Still, Quantum is dropping all its defense work so that it can focus entirely on helping Ford meet its 2021 deadline. “Anything that’s not required for 2021 is automatically going to be deprioritized,” Visintainer said.

But that doesn’t mean Quantum’s work for the military won’t be used.

For example, Quantum remotely operated robots that acted as sentries for U.S. military bases in remote locations, such as Alaska. The robots would respond to intruder alerts, which in Alaska were often wandering moose, and could deploy lights and sounds to scare off the interlopers. That technology could be used to remotely operate a driverless delivery van navigating a loading dock or a robot carrying a package to the front porch.

“The operating system they have for robots compliments some of the work we’re doing on delivery robots,” said Visintainer, a 32-year Ford veteran and former U.S. Navy officer. “They’re going to help the robot navigate through the world.”

Quantum also is well known for its ANVEL simulation software, which was used by the military’s robotics programs to explore the performance of autonomous systems. Tools like that and Quantum’s sniper target simulation can be used to create richly detailed virtual environments to show how robot rides will share the road with unpredictable human drivers, Visintainer said.

“We need to have partnerships and acquisitions to get us where we need to go,” Visintainer said. “Quantum is the latest step in that direction.”

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