Ford preparing big boost in California footprint

Jim Lynch
The Detroit News

Palo Alto, Calif. — Ford Motor Co.’s current Silicon Valley digs, nestled among the business parks in this cool California town, may prove symbolic down the road.

The Blue Oval is a small presence here now, occupying most of an unremarkable two-story office building. But on the horizon — or just across the street, actually — lies the promise of much more.

By the end of this year, the nation’s No. 2 automaker will inhabit a massive new workspace, and will eventually double its workforce to 300, in this hotbed of technology — a place where autonomous driving is being propelled forward. In the race for leadership in driverless/connected/electric vehicles, it’s a potentially powerful statement about what the company feels its chances may be.

The expansion comes on the heels of Ford’s boldest move yet in the autonomous car universe. In February, the company that appropriated the “Smart Mobility” tag for its mobility-and-autonomy unit said it would invest $1 billion in Argo AI to help develop the brains of self-driving cars.

Ford opened its office here on the Stanford University campus in 2015, three years after first establishing a San Francisco Bay presence. Roughly 150 employees operate out of the current building which has many of the earmarks of a tech start-up — a laid-back atmosphere with plenty of open space, workstations with multiple monitors and the clicking of constant coding underway.

An American industrial icon looking to upgrade its techy bona fides could do worse than having a next-door neighbor like Skype, the online messaging and communication service.

“This new research center shows Ford’s commitment to be part of the Silicon Valley innovation ecosystem — anticipating customers’ wants and needs, especially on connectivity, mobility and autonomous vehicles,” Ford CEO Mark Fields said. “We are working to make these new technologies accessible to everyone, not just luxury customers.”

Ford spokesman Colin Smith said the workforce will “at least double” by the end of the year, and many of those here will be moved across the street to the new facility. And many of those employees will rotate between Palo Alto and Ford headquarters in Dearborn.

Right now, that facility is a work in progress — a previously vacant office building being transformed into 150,000 square feet of research and testing space.

“It will contain additional facilities for the research center, design studios, engineering labs, software engineering stations and an auditorium,” Smith said. It is unclear at this point if Argo AI, based in Pittsburgh, will occupy space in the new building which sits near other such large-scale operations as Lockheed Martin and Hewlett Packard.

Ford’s approach in California is mirrored by rival General Motors. It acquired Cruise Automation last year, following up last month with plans to invest $14 million in a San Francisco facility for the start-up.

Bettering the Blue Oval’s chances for success in mobility services and self-driving vehicles means not only establishing a physical presence in Silicon Valley. It means utilizing the other players located here to Ford’s best advantage — something Ford officials recognized when they first arrived here.

“Our Palo Alto research team will build on existing relationships with universities and technology companies, and forge new ones to help us create and apply the appropriate technology working together,” Raj Nair, Ford’s executive vice president of product development, said in 2015.

Intel Corp.’s Kathy Winter expressed similar concerns about locating among autonomy’s biggest players when discussing the chipmaker’s Innovation Center location in San Jose. The vice president and general Manger of Intel’s Automated Driving Group described the center as a place where “we can be close to potential partners, potential start-ups (and) close to OEM partners that have a presence out here.”

Stanford is the main university player in the region. Chris Gerdes, a professor of mechanical engineering who runs the university’s automotive innovation facility, says being nearby is key for automakers.

“I think it creates a very different mindset,” he said in an interview. “There is sort of a sense out here in Silicon Valley that anything is possible. ... It’s easy to just only look in your backyard and say everything must be like this.

“But also there’s a lot of talent here. There is a lot of energy and enthusiasm. And to be able to tap into that is really important.”

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