Howes: Ford follows industry lead, taps talent in Israel

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News
Ford Motor Co.'s executive chairman, Bill Ford, is in Tel Aviv, Israel, to announce the opening of the automaker's research center there.

Detroit’s road to Auto 2.0 keeps running through Israel, a tiny nation exerting big influence on the technologies driving autonomous vehicles.

Ford Motor Co. on Wednesday is opening a research center in Tel Aviv, a hub bolstering the automaker’s global research and advanced engineering teams in China, Germany and Dearborn with expertise in connectivity, sensor technology, simulation, software and cyber-security.

“It’s a very, very vibrant ecosystem here,” Executive Chairman Bill Ford said in an interview from Israel, adding that the Blue Oval has been active there with local tech scouts for nearly a decade. “It’s going to be an interesting place to be. So much of the entrepreneurial ecosystem comes out of the Israel Defense Forces.”

The result is more than 7,000 tech start-ups in so-called “Start-Up Nation" — roughly 10% of which are automotive focused. Because Israel's domestic market is comparatively small, principals there are eager to partner with foreign companies to expand their reach, to commercialize their work and to help shape next-generation automotive technologies for self-driving vehicles.

And in an auto industry facing the most consequential change since Henry Ford's moving assembly line enabled the masses to move, computer scientists, electrical engineers and software developers see a chance for advanced auto technology to affect millions worldwide, to make transportation safer, more accessible and more efficient to use only when needed.

The Ford Research Center Israel will operate alongside SAIPS, a leading Israeli computer vision and machine learning company that Ford acquired three years ago. Its founder and CEO, Udy Danino, will be the Israel technical director for the new center that will start small with "a handful of people" and be expected to grow over time.

Ford is not alone. The country also is home to automotive tech centers of General Motors Co., Daimler AG, BMW AG, and Volkswagen AG, among others. This week the Renault-Nissan alliance used EcoMotion 2019, a start-up community gathering built around mobility, to announce its plans to open an "innovation center" in Tel Aviv.

Israel "really is a hotbed of technology innovation," says Ken Washington, Ford's chief technology officer. "The short answer is we're there because there's a high density of companies that could be of value to us. We're finding we need the scale and to accelerate."

Rival GM already did. Long before its federally induced bankruptcy forced a brutal rationalization of its foreign and domestic footprint, the Detroit automaker quietly began in 1995 to operate in Israel. But it wasn't until January 2008, roughly 10 months before then-CEO Rick Wagoner would plead for a federal bailout, that Gil Golan returned to Israel to open and direct what's now called GM Advanced Technical Center Israel at Herzliya.

Wisely unscathed by the bankruptcy restructuring, the center employs 350 more than a decade later and could expand to 500. Nearly 80% are computer scientists or electrical engineers, one-third hold doctorates in their respective fields, and many of the GM hires come from elite military units like 8200 and Talpiot, whose members develop next-generation technology for the Israeli military.

"The local people here are risk takers, for good or for bad," says Golan, himself a veteran of Unit 8200, the Israeli technical intelligence equivalent of the National Security Agency in the United States. "They have a can-do attitude. Very creative. Very disciplined. A strong sense of ownership. Strong entrepreneurship DNA in the culture."

That's not all. Israel boasts the world's No. 2 venture-capital sector, trailing only the United States. Roughly 4.25% of Israel's gross domestic product is spent on research and development, he says, the highest percentage in the world. Israel trails only China for the number of foreign tech companies listed on the tech-heavy NASDAQ exchange.

And the Silicon Valley tech giants? They're in Israel, too. Intel Corp. employs 12,800 in Israel, including the folks it picked up in the $15.4 billion acquisition of what's now Mobileye Vision Technology Ltd., the Jerusalem-based maker of a vision-based advanced driver-assist system. Apple Inc. employs 1,700, its largest tech hub outside its Cupertino, Calif., headquarters. Google, Facebook, Amazon, Nvidia — all there.

"The main driver," says Golan, "is the number of computer scientists and electrical engineers" in Israel, effectively making Tel Aviv second only to Silicon Valley for the kind of technical talent driving the Auto 2.0 spaces of mobility, electrification and, especially, autonomy. "The automotive sector is a latecomer to the game."

Results don't come overnight, warns Golan, requiring leadership to understand the local business culture, its values and taking the time to build credibility with action. "You cannot cut corners here. Before (a) tech center will be strong and efficient, it will take years."

(313) 222-2106

Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, listen to his Saturday podcasts, or catch him at 3 p.m. and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM