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Ford opens Silicon Valley innovation center

Michael Martinez
The Detroit News

Palo Alto, Calif. — Ford Motor Co. is doubling-down on Silicon Valley.

The Dearborn automaker on Thursday opened a 25,000-square-foot innovation and mobility center in the backyard of Google, Yahoo and Facebook in an effort to accelerate its mobility and autonomous vehicle research. Ford has had a presence here — a small office that housed about eight workers — since 2012. But President and CEO Mark Fields said the automaker wanted to become a major player in the region and take advantage of nearby university partners and app developers like Nest.

“What I’m so struck by, the valley here is a marketplace of ideas,” Fields said. “When you’re shopping for a house, it’s all about location, location, location. Here, it’s about being in the right neighborhood because of all the collection of companies. Our folks going to the coffee shops will run into folks from other companies and strike up conversation.”

The new center is home to 21 engineers, app developers and scientists, and Ford expects to employ 125 here by the end of the year. The employees are working on everything from driverless cars to apps that allow home thermostats to be set from vehicles. Ford will hire most of its 125 Silicon Valley workers locally in California, but some will come from Ford’s offices in Dearborn, Fields said.

“There’s not a lot of secrets; folks are willing to share ideas,” Fields said. “That’s why it’s so important to be here.”

Ford has similar research and innovation centers in Dearborn and Aachen, Germany. The Dearborn facility focuses on advanced electronics, human-machine interface, materials science, big data and analytics, while the German center focuses on next-generation powertrain research, driver-assist technologies and active safety systems.

But the Palo Alto facility was necessary because of its location, Ford executives said.

“It’s definitely different than the culture in Detroit. ... We really value this cultural diversity,” said Raj Nair, Ford’s product chief. “The collaborations will be a great opportunity for us. We’re going to have one of the largest presences of any automotive company out here.

“We want to be a partner of choice out here and be part of this community.”

Ford said Thursday it’s growing its partnership with Stanford University by donating a Fusion Hybrid to its engineering program to test driverless car algorithms in order to faster develop autonomous cars. Fields recently said he expects a fully driverless car to be on the road in five years.

The automaker is also working with Carnegie Mellon University to upgrade its voice-recognition systems. Typically, voice recognition can falter if you’re in heavy traffic or aren’t in an area with a strong wireless network signal. Researchers at the university are testing an embedded device that would respond to voice commands regardless of network strength. It could be on cars within a year or two.

Ford is also working with Nest, located blocks away from its new center, to integrate its thermostat, carbon monoxide detector and smoke detector sensors into the car so drivers can receive notifications on the Sync infotainment system, and can pre-set desired temperatures when they start their drive home.

The Palo Alto team is working on technology that allows them to drive a vehicle remotely. A person sitting in the California lab can access real-time video to drive golf carts thousands of miles away at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

“We really want to become part of the ecosystem here,” Ken Washington, vice president of Ford research and advanced engineering, said. “To do that, you need to have a physical presence in the Bay Area. It was a pretty easy decision to make to expand our presence.”


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