Ford Sets up Shop in Silicon Valley

New R&D center part of shift in thinking about car as mobile “platform.”

by on Jan.06, 2012

Ford's new Silicon Valley center will be located near key tech giants like HP, Microsoft and Google - as well as Stanford University.

Ford Motor Co. is setting up a new research lab in California’s fabled Silicon Valley, underscoring the Detroit maker’s efforts to turn the car into a mobile “platform,” rather than just a mechanical conveyance.

The new facility will help Ford develop a variety of new features and apps for its future products, from high-tech safety systems to advanced infotainment systems, company officials note.  It will be used to develop partnerships with both established technology firms – such as Microsoft, which developed the underlying software behind Ford’s popular Sync system – and start-ups.

The lab, which will be located near Stanford University, in Palo Alto, will help by “ushering in a new era of collaboration and finding new partners to help us transform what it means to be an automaker,” explained Ford’s Chief Technical Officer Paul Mascarenas, who suggested the move is “a very natural extension” for the second-largest of the U.S. makers.

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Ford has put a heavy emphasis on technology in recent years – as have many of its competitors.  Mark Fields, Ford’s President of the Americas, frequently talks about “democratizing technology,” by taking high-tech systems previously found in limited use on luxury products and putting it into high-volume production on mainstream models like the new Ford Fusion.

“An open attitude to new ideas is critical to solving the transportation, environmental and societal challenges we expect in the future,” said Mascarenas. “With increasing pressures from urbanization and the need to reduce energy use, we’re going to see energy storage, wireless connectivity, sensing systems and even autonomous vehicles as key parts of the solution.”

One Ford partnership already in place, with San Francisco-based Weather Underground, is studying the possibility of using car-to-car communications to alert motorists to changing weather.  It would send a signal to so-called “networked vehicles” when the windshield wipers on one of the cars on that network were turned on.

Setting up the lab – which is expected to house 15 Ford employees – will get the maker closer to the entrepreneurial center of the high-tech world and provide some distance from corporate headquarters in the old world of automotive decision-making.

Whether it will work remains to be seen.  Ford tried setting up a campus for its luxury brands – then known as the Premier Automotive Group – in Orange County, south of Los Angeles, a decade ago.  The goal was to put the marques, including Jaguar, Land Rover and Lincoln, closer to buyers in the world’s largest luxury market.  It never quite worked up to expectations.  Lincoln returned to Detroit and, with sales and earnings well short of their goal the maker eventually sold off the rest of its European luxury divisions.

But Ford appears to be achieving much greater success in its push to become a high-tech company that just happens to build cars.  The Sync system has been helping the maker attract large numbers of hip, young buyers who traditionally ignored domestic brands.

On the other hand, the maker has discovered there are some big differences between smartphones and smart cars.  It has taken some hard hits, in recent months, from the likes of J.D. Powers and Consumer Reports, due to customer complaints about problems with new infotainment systems like MyFordTouch.

Ford isn’t the only automaker betting on Silicon Valley.  Among other established auto manufacturers who have set up research centers there are General Motors, the Renault-Nissan Alliance, BMW and Volkswagen, the latter doing much of its battery car research in the Valley.

The high-tech enclave, an hour south of San Francisco, also serves as home to Tesla Motors, the start-up battery-car manufacturer founded by Elon Musk, who made his initial fortune with the Internet’s PayPal.

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