December 11, 2019 / 11:17 AM / a month ago

Self-driving car firms rooted in U.S. government competition

FILE PHOTO: Ford President and CEO Jim Hackett (R) and Volkswagen AG CEO Dr. Herbert Diess (L) pose together with Bryan Salesky, chief executive officer and co-founder of Argo AI LLC at a news conference in New York City, New York, U.S., July 12, 2019. REUTERS/Mike Segar/File Photo

(Reuters) - Bryan Salesky had little way of knowing in 2007 that his teammates and rivals in a U.S. Defense Department-sponsored competition were laying the foundations for future self-driving businesses now valued at billions of dollars.

Twelve years later, even some of his former Carnegie Mellon University teammates have become business competitors of Salesky, who with CMU alumnus and faculty adviser Peter Rander founded Argo AI and went on to attract substantial investments from Ford Motor Co and Volkswagen AG (VOWG_p.DE).

At the 2007 self-driving competition staged by DoD’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in remote Victorville, California, Salesky’s CMU team and one from rival Stanford University included the future founders of at least four self-driving startups.

Those competitors were Chris Urmson and Drew Bagnell of self-driving vehicle startup Aurora, Dave Ferguson of Nuro, Apex.ai’s Jan Becker and Anthony Levandowski of Pronto.ai.

Sebastian Thrun, who with Levandowski and Urmson helped build Google’s self-driving business, also participated in the 2007 DARPA Urban Challenge, as did Dmitri Dolgov, who now heads engineering at Google’s self-driving spinout Waymo.

CMU edged Stanford to win the competition. But Salesky, the son of a Michigan steelworker, would travel a more circuitous path than some of his fellow wizards. He put in stints at Caterpillar and Google before reconnecting with Michigan native and former Uber staffer Rander in late 2016 at a small Italian restaurant north of CMU’s Pittsburgh campus to lay the groundwork for Argo AI.

Salesky told Reuters he and Urmson, who were part of a multidisciplinary CMU team in 2007 and later worked together at Google, were still friends.

“We clicked super well,” said Salesky. “The rest is history.”

Reporting by Paul Lienert in Detroit; Editing by Tom Brown

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