High-tech cars bring Detroit, Silicon Valley face to face
Palo Alto, California — The office has all the trappings of a high-tech startup. There’s a giant beanbag in the foyer and erasable, white board walls for brainstorming. Someone’s dog lounges happily on the sunny balcony.
Welcome to the Palo Alto home of the Ford Motor Co., six miles from the headquarters of Google.
Meanwhile, in a squat, industrial building in suburban Detroit, a short drive from Ford’s headquarters, workers are busy building a small fleet of driverless cars.
The company behind them? Google.
The convergence of cars and computers is blurring the traditional geographical boundaries of both industries. Silicon Valley is dotted with research labs opened by automakers and suppliers, who are racing to develop high-tech infotainment systems and autonomous cars. Tech companies — looking to grow and sensing an industry that’s ripe for disruption — are heading to Detroit to better understand the auto industry and get their software embedded into cars.
The result is both heated competition and unprecedented cooperation between two industries that rarely spoke to each other five years ago.
“It’s a cross-pollination. We’re educating both sides,” says Niall Berkerey, who runs the Detroit office of Telenav, a California firm that makes navigation software.
There’s also plenty of employee poaching. Apple recently hired Fiat Chrysler’s former quality chief. Ride-sharing service Uber snagged 40 researchers and scientists from Carnegie Mellon’s Pittsburgh robotics lab. Tesla’s head of vehicle development used to work at Apple.
For years the fast-paced tech industry showed little respect for the plodding car industry. Google and Palo Alto-based Tesla, with its high-tech electric sedans, convinced many to give the industry another look. The average car now processes more than 4,200 signals — from the engine and transmission to the backup camera to the radio — using 40 electronic control units, according to Boston Consulting Group.
Dragos Maciuca, a former Apple engineer who’s now the technical director of Ford’s Palo Alto research lab, says he’s seeing a new excitement about the auto industry in Silicon Valley. For one thing, cars provide a palpable sense of accomplishment for software engineers.
“If you work at Google or Yahoo, it’s hard to point out, ‘Well, I wrote that piece of code.’ It’s really hard to be excited about it or show your kids,” Maciuca he says. “In the auto industry, you can go, ‘See that button? The stuff that’s behind it, I worked on that.’ ”
Santa Clara, California-based Nvidia was best known for making chips for computer games before it got into the car business. Now, it makes the computer processors that power Tesla’s 17-inch touchscreen dashboard and Audi’s experimental self-driving cars, among other products. It had to develop new manufacturing techniques and higher levels of certification for the auto business, such as tests to make sure its computer chips would still work in subzero temperatures, says Danny Shapiro, Nvidia’s senior director of automotive.
For their part, the automakers are learning that rolling out cars that remain static for years until the next model comes out is no longer practical. At the insistence of tech companies such as Telenav and Nvidia, they’re learning to make cars with navigation, infotainment and other features that can be constantly updated.
Frankie James, a former NASA researcher who now runs General Motors’ Palo Alto office, says spotting trends and potential threats is an important part of her job. Her team alerted GM to the car-sharing trend, for example, and the automaker invested $3 million in Relay Rides in 2011.
Now, she’s watching companies that could potentially disrupt the auto business, such as Google and Apple. Google has promised a self-driving car within five years, and Apple has hired people from Tesla, Ford and other car companies for its own top-secret project.
“We need to say, ‘OK, if we think Apple is going to build something like this because they’ve got this vision of the future,’ if we take that same vision of the future, what can we do? How can we continue to play?” James says.
Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.