Argo AI, the self-driving car startup that attracted a $1 billion investment from Ford back in 2017, is closing its doors. TechCrunch reports that the more than 2,000 employees were told this news today in an all-hands meeting that included an address from the startup’s founders.
Details are still scarce, especially the one we all want to know: Why exactly is startup shutting down. According to TechCrunch, Ford and Argo’s other main investor, Volkswagen, will absorb its assets and retain some of its workers.
The good news is, it sounds like Argo’s employees won’t be left completely out to dry. They’ll all reportedly get “a severance package that includes insurance and two separate bonuses — an annual award plus a transaction bonus upon the deal close with Ford and VW.” For anyone who isn’t offered a job at Ford or VW, their package includes “termination and severance pay, including health insurance.”
More information will probably come to light in the next week or so, but Argo shutting down is big deal. It doesn’t necessarily mean automated driving is dead in the water or anything quite that drastic, but Argo was one of the companies you had to cheer for even if you were highly skeptical of autonomous technology.
Unlike Elon Musk and Tesla, Argo didn’t make wildly unfounded claims that it was just a couple of years away from offering self-driving taxis that could drive across the country entirely on their own. Right from the beginning, the CEO made it clear Argo knew that wasn’t the case, writing in a blog post:
We’re still very much in the early days of making self-driving cars a reality. Those who think fully self-driving vehicles will be ubiquitous on city streets months from now or even in a few years are not well connected to the state of the art or committed to the safe deployment of the technology. For those of us who have been working on the technology for a long time, we’re going to tell you the issue is still really hard, as the systems are as complex as ever.
And he was right. Five years later, you still can’t buy a self-driving car. Automated taxi services from Google’s Waymo and GM’s Cruise exist in specific cities with great roads and little rain or snow, but that’s about as far as we’ve gotten.
If autonomous cars were ever going to make it onto the road in significant numbers, it looked like Argo was taking the right approach. But for whatever reason, that didn’t work out. Maybe one day, the technology will be mature enough to actually replace human drivers, but it’s hard to see this as anything other than a major setback for autonomous driving.
It’s not like the race to get self-driving cars on the road has been cheap, either. Companies have reportedly spent at least $100 billion trying to develop technology that still isn’t guaranteed to work. And even if it does, will it do anything to significantly improve people’s lives in ways that a major investment in public transportation wouldn’t?