• Bryan Salesky dove into the world of autonomous driving almost 15 years ago, in his mid-20s.
  • At the time, he was in charge of software for a team in a self-driving car race. Then, a few years later, he was named head of hardware for Google's autonomous driving division.
  • In 2016, he and his ex-boss founded the startup Argo AI, which is now valued at more than $7 billion. A few months ago, VW jumped in - for $2.6 billion.
  • See more stories on Insider's business page.

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Excited Bryan Salesky sits there in 2017, second from left, as he joins his co-founder Peter Rander and Ford executives to reveal his company Argo AI's partnership with the automaker. Even then, he is dressed in the small-checked light blue shirt, whose collar peeks out from under a dark blue sweatshirt that is always the same - a combination with which he still presents himself to the public today.

At the time, Ford entered the robot car startup Argo AI with a promise and a demand: the automaker would invest one billion U.S. dollars over a five-year period. In return, Salesky and Co. would enable Ford's first autonomous cars next year in 2021.

As they announce the partnership, Salesky stumbles over the words he had jotted down on a piece of paper before the press conference. He was reluctant to appear before the public at the time, and that hasn't changed to this day. And even though he still flaunts his shirt-sweater combination at his rare appearances, these days he's already scratching the surface of his personal billion-dollar fortune. Thanks in part to the recent entry of another auto giant - the VW Group.

The Wolfsburg-based company joined Argo AI last June, likely spurred by the chase it has taken on Tesla, which also hails from California. After all, the company led by Elon Musk has not only entered the electric mobility market in a big way but also in the field of autonomous driving. For example, the first beta tests of the company's Fully Self-Driving (FSD) software have been running on public roads in the U.S. for several days.

Volkswagen's investment in the startup was worth $2.6 billion. But what are Wolfsburg's hopes for Argo CEO Bryan Salesky?

A digression in California

The 39-year-old Salesky comes from a suburb of the U.S. car city of Detroit, moved to Pittsburgh, a four-hour drive away, to study. At the private Carnegie Mellon University, he headed the software department of a winning team in the legendary autonomous car race "Darpa Urban Challenge" in 2007, among other things.

Then, starting in 2011, he worked for Google, leading the hardware division of its robot car division, now known as Waymo. Five years later, however, he was drawn back to his home region, the northwestern United States, to the country's Great Lakes, once the hub of North American big business. He gained a foothold in Pittsburgh, founding the robot car startup Argo AI in 2016 together with his former Google boss Peter Rander.

Initially, the venture was still keeping its head above water with smaller investments, until Ford then invested one billion US dollars in the spring of 2017, thus securing almost forty percent of the company's shares. A good three years later, the Volkswagen Group also secured just under 40 percent of the shares, but this time for $2.6 billion. In return, the Wolfsburg-based company promises itself the software that will steer the first autonomously driving VW cars along the roads in this country in the not too distant future.

Ford and Volkswagen are investing a lot of time in the development of the technology, and the automakers are placing a lot of trust in the founder, Salesky. And Salesky is by no means being flippant about it. His statements on the state of the art go well with the shirt-sweater combination and are notable more for their modesty than for their big promises. In the industry, Salesky's counterpart Elon Musk is responsible for those anyway, and he is already working with fully self-driving cars, while Tesla technology is by no means flawless.

"Won't see Level 5 in my lifetime".

The capabilities of autonomous vehicle software are divided into five different levels. A large proportion of vehicles already sold today are equipped with Level 3 functionality, which includes lane-keeping and distance-assistance systems and can, for example, park and unpark autonomously. From Level 4, the vehicle navigates independently on the roads - but a driver must be in the driver's seat and be able to intervene in an emergency. Level 5 and higher is referred to as complete automation. While Musk promises Tesla fans Level 5 cars in the near future, Salesky said in the "Merge Now" podcast that he would probably not live to see this level of automation in his lifetime.

With assessments like this, he is likely to be much closer to the pace of development and innovation of established automakers as opposed to Silicon Valley e-car startups. "I've been working with car companies for 15 years and I know that we can't dictate much," he says, according to Handelsblatt.

However, this joint work would also be needed. Without the automaker behind it, his company would be a chair with three legs, and could not function on its own - for that it would need the car production of Ford and VW. Only if the software (the autonomous driving system) and hardware (the vehicle itself) were developed together would the best possible result be guaranteed.

Such development takes time. But Argo AI, VW, and Ford can afford the time. Because, at least in Europe, the automation of road traffic is not only tied to the development speed of carmakers and software houses, but also to the legislature. And the mills of the regulatory bodies grind notoriously slowly in Germany and our neighboring countries.

This article appeared on Business Insider back in December 2020 and has now been reviewed and updated.

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