Carnegie Mellon, Argo AI Form $15M Self-Driving Car Research Center

Carnegie Mellon University this week announced a five-year research partnership with Argo AI that will focus on advanced perception and decision-making algorithms for autonomous vehicles (AVs). Argo AI, a Pittsburgh-based self-driving car startup whose majority investor is Ford (NYSE: F), is spending $15 million to fund the effort, which will be called the Carnegie Mellon University Argo AI Center for Autonomous Vehicle Research.

Deva Ramanan, an associate professor at CMU and a principal scientist at Argo, will serve as the center’s principal investigator. He says that despite the rapid advancement of the robotics and artificial intelligence technologies needed to power AVs, there is still plenty of work to be done.

Carnegie Mellon researchers want to look five to 10 years into the future at next-generation solutions that could accelerate the large-scale, global deployment of self-driving cars, he adds. CMU students and faculty will be able to access Argo’s fleet-scale datasets, vehicles, and the vehicles’ robotics and computing platforms as part of the endeavor.

“[Access to Argo’s assets] is really crucial in terms of an academic resource,” Ramanan says. “The university doesn’t have the resources to manage a fleet of autonomous vehicles.”

In a recent post on Medium, Ramanan went deeper into why research partnerships between academia and industry are needed to advance AV research: “To build robotic systems that can operate in the real world, a massive amount of infrastructure is needed for continuous software integration, large-scale sensor data collection and processing, and fleet maintenance and refinement. Simply put, neither academic institutions nor industry can do it alone.”

Some of the areas CMU researchers will explore include smart sensor fusion, 3D scene understanding, urban scene simulation, map-based perception, imitation and reinforcement learning, behavioral prediction, and software validation, Ramanan says. The center plans to publish its findings, which will build on public data already released by Argo, in scientific literature for use by the entire AV field. It will also post updates on a yet-to-be-constructed website.

“We’re making sure AVs work across all weather conditions and geographies,” Ramanan says, and gives an example of one scenario researchers will explore. “As we put more sensors on cars, they get flooded with sensor readings, and it’s important to process that in an efficient way. Initially, it will be lab-based research. But one of the cool opportunities we have is engagement with real-world data collected by Argo on the road.”

CMU has a long history of developing robotics technology and has been performing AV research for 30 years, Ramanan notes. Argo, which was founded by a team of CMU alumni in 2016, has close ties to and existing collaborations with the university. CMU also conducts AV-related research for GM (NYSE: GM), Uber (NYSE: UBER), and other transportation companies.

But Ramanan says Pittsburgh’s DNA also played a part in choosing to locate the research center at CMU. “In some ways, it’s related to the Midwestern ethos and its history of building things,” he continues. “It’s well suited for robotics, not just software.”

Ramanan says the center’s first year will revolve around finding a physical location on campus and getting initial research projects underway.

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