Michigan, not Silicon Valley, produced Ford's self-driving gurus

Ian Thibodeau
The Detroit News

The brains behind Ford Motor Co.'s push into self-driving cars don't come from Silicon Valley — they come from southeast Michigan. 

Bryan Salesky, left, and Pete Rander are CEO and president, respectively, of tech firm Argo AI.

Michigan natives Bryan Salesky and Pete Rander are the CEO and president, respectively, of Argo AI, the tech company majority owned by the Dearborn-based automaker. They're nearly two years into a partnership that aims to push the Blue Oval, and its industry rivals, into a future of self-driving cars promising a slew of new services beyond the metal Ford today sells.

"It's going to take several years to scale this thing out," Salesky said in an interview. "It's not going to happen overnight, be a winner-take-all grudge match. It doesn't help anybody to over-promise ... or to fail to deliver on this promise."

The pairing is potentially lucrative for both companies: Ford gets big tech names attached to its self-driving development teams. Salesky and Rander, meantime, get to extend their talent net into the auto industry as Argo competes with General Motors Co.'s Cruise Automation team, Google parent Alphabet Inc.'s Waymo and others to assemble the strongest team in the race to develop and launch self-driving automobiles.

"We need to collaborate to really pull this off," Rander said in an interview. "That requires respect. That requires trust."

Ford plans to launch its first production autonomous vehicles in 2021. They will be part of a fleet intended to transition seamlessly between transporting people and delivering goods. Ford and Argo are several months into working on a business model in Miami, details of which could become clearer near the end of this year.

But Salesky, 38, and Rander, 49, haven't been holed up in Silicon Valley while they and their growing team build their end of the deal. The two leaders hop between offices in Allen Park, right across Southfield Freeway from one of Ford's development centers; in Pittsburgh, their home base where they mine robotics talent pumping out of Carnegie Mellon University; and in Silicon Valley, ground zero for tech development.

Not trailing competitors

Since Ford in 2017 announced a five-year, $1 billion investment in Argo, the Pittsburgh-based company has grown to nearly 400 employees — and they're not all software pros from the coast.

"The density is maybe not as great here, but the talent is here," Salesky said. He bristles at the suggestion that Ford and Argo are trailing competitors in the self-driving vehicle race. "It is absolutely here."

That sentiment, arguably attributable as much to their roots as their professional experience, makes Salesky and Rander unique among the company leaders in the autonomous space. They say others tend to lack experience in or understanding of the automotive industry; have left positions at automakers to plant flags in Silicon Valley; or lean more heavily on Silicon Valley's outside-in view of the auto industry to compete in the self-driving race.

Not the leaders of Argo AI. Salesky was born in Woodhaven. He attended grade school there and in Novi before moving to New Jersey and then Pittsburgh for high school. His stepfather worked in the steel industry here, and his biological father worked various blue-collar jobs, including a brief stint at Ford's Woodhaven Stamping Plant.

Rander grew up on the west side of the state in Conklin, north of Grand Rapids. He got a bachelor's degree in 1991 from the University of Detroit Mercy. Salesky's bachelor's degree is from the University of Pittsburgh.

And both men got their starts working with Silicon Valley companies — Rander with Uber and Salesky with Google's Waymo — on self-driving cars before they had a similar epiphany: They'd never be able to build an effective, safe self-driving car without working with Detroit.

"All of these assets that I think the traditional car companies think of as anchors are here," Salesky said, ticking down a list that includes wind tunnels, the understanding embedded software, vehicle controls and moving parts. "These things don't exist anywhere else. You have to come here in order to build a product of this magnitude and complexity."

Sixteen major automotive manufacturers have a headquarters or technical center in Michigan. And 92 of the top 100 automotive suppliers have a presence in the state; 60 of them are headquartered here. 

"People don't realize how much this part of the U.S. has contributed to not just the economy but a lot of know-how that's come out of these industries," Salesky said.

Taking care not to alienate Detroit helped alleviate some tension between Ford engineers who'd been working on autonomy since 2005, and the new, small company and engineers brought in by former CEO Mark Fields in early 2017. The thinking: Ford needed a lifeline to develop the software for its robotic vehicles.

That also means tuning out some of the baggage the century-old industry here carries, Salesky said: “This town is all fixated on GM versus Ford. I don’t worry about those things. I’m focused on building this company and getting this technology out there."

Two Ford autonomous vehicles pass each other during a demonstration where autonomous vehicles interact with pedestrians, bicyclists and driven vehicles, June 21, 2017, on the Mcity track at the University of Michigan's North Campus in Ann Arbor.

Growing cohesion

Chris Brewer, chief program engineer of Ford's autonomous vehicle development, sees a growing cohesion between Ford's teams and the Argo employees. The Ford outsiders add credence to the 115-year-old automaker's push into autonomous vehicles, and they're winning over longtime Ford engineers like Brewer with their humility.

"They have a healthy respect for how big the problem is," Brewer said. "They're not arrogant. They're really smart people, and they're fun people to work with. They're also pretty good about knowing what they don't know. The relationship is broadening."

That adds a rare practicality to Argo and Ford's autonomous vehicle development. The tech people don't pretend to know all that goes into building a vehicle, and the Ford engineers don't pretend to be expert coders. 

Sam Abuelsamid is an analyst with Navigant Research, a Chicago-based company that keeps tabs on autonomous vehicle development. He predicted Ford and Argo won't be first to market with an autonomous vehicle, but that might not matter. 

Salesky and Rander both stress that Ford's business model would be seamlessly applicable to cities of varying sizes when it launches. The partnering companies don't intend to launch in one city and isolate the program to that one place in order to figure out how to build the system up for a new place.

"Their approach is more pragmatic," Abuelsamid said. "I don't think anyone would describe them as the typical Silicon Valley startup type. There's a lot of respect for those guys."

Argo is not owned by Ford. Ford has a majority stake in the company — Argo and Ford officials declined to say what percentage of the company Ford's $1 billion investment netted — but the five-member board is made up of two Ford representatives, two Argo representatives and one independent member. 

"I haven't had to mind meld," Salesky said. "We set our own culture at Argo."

Plans for another partner

Argo's leadership plans to continue to build out the team while it builds the business model with Ford. 

Salesky and Rander are open about the fact that they hope to partner with another automaker in the future. The software Argo is building won't be proprietary Ford technology. Ford is working on its own software to supplement its work with Argo in the form of a sort of app platform that would allow subscribers and participants to use Ford's vehicles for anything from ride-hailing to delivery services.

The partnership won't stop after 2021, Rander said. The automaker and Argo are focused on the launch year, because that's step one. But the company is preparing to continue work after it launches its first autonomous vehicle.

"We've been able to stay focused because we have an excellent plan," Rander said. 

Salesky made a name for himself in the self-driving space more than a decade ago at the 2007 DARPA challenge, a competition credited with starting the autonomous vehicle race. For now, he's trying to keep his team and partners at Ford focused on 2021.

"These emerging things take a long time to pay off," Salesky said. "We’d like to show things and not just talk about stuff. We just want to be heads down, because there is a lot of work to do, obviously. We want to stay focused on building the autonomous system. We want to be the ones to field a safe, trusted system that can scale from city to city without tremendous difficulty."

Twitter: @Ian_Thibodeau