The Silicon Valley lab is officially a defensive strategy

23 Jan 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Ford Opens Lab in Silicon Valley.

The Research and Innovation Center positions the car maker more squarely in the high-tech ecosystem, where it can generate big ideas for the next generation of connected vehicles. In the latest sign that the distinctions between the auto and tech industries are becoming more blurry, Ford on Thursday celebrated the opening of a new research center in Palo Alto, Calif., in the heart of Silicon Valley. Joining centers in Michigan and Germany, the Palo Alto facility will concentrate on the intersection between automotive advances and computing areas like mobility, natural interface development, consumer electronics, and big data. We are working to make these new technologies accessible to everyone, not just luxury customers.” Ford first opened an office in Silicon Valley in 2012.

Mark Fields, who became Ford’s chief executive last July, said the new center was meant to make a statement. “We want to be viewed as part of the ecosystem of Silicon Valley,” he said. The move saves the Web giant from building and maintaining a network, and instead means it can resell service via Sprint and T-Mobile and gain new users without any marketing costs. The old office used to house only eight employees, while this new one currently has 20 engineers—mostly in software—and with plans to increase that number to 125 this year. Ford is also working with Nest, part of Google Inc., on the ability for its vehicles to communicate with home thermostats so a person’s heat might be automatically lowered as he or she drives away from the house. Starting Sunday, all Un-carrier customers who have paid their wireless bill on time for a year will qualify for the lowest pricing on smartphones and tablets.

Many of the big auto manufacturers have an office located somewhere in the Silicon Valley area as R&D labs to look into autonomous driving and car connectivity as well as form partnerships with local tech companies and universities. Given the pace of car development and manufacturing, any innovations from the development center are likely to take years before showing up in vehicles. This week, Microsoft introduced the HoloLens augmented reality headset, designed to act like a three-dimensional computer display for use at home or the office.

Maciuca got his PhD at University of California, Berkeley back in 1997, where his thesis was on autonomous driving. “Autonomous driving has been 20 years out for a long time, now it’s a shorter time than that,” Maciuca said as he walked about the facility. The company will sharpen its skills in Big Data analytics skills on the vehicle side of the business and then take those learnings back into the broader business. Ford plans to expand those analytics tools into marketing and sales, finance, purchasing and manufacturing, said Raj Nair, Ford group vice president of global product development and chief technical officer.

Fields, Ford has moved aggressively to establish itself as a technological innovator, with a large presence at the 2015 International CES, the giant technology industry event. Nair, are careful to say that they realize the data coming from vehicles is the customer’s data and Ford will have an opt-in policy so customers can choose to participate.

There, Ford announced what it called a “smart mobility” plan that would tackle problems like global gridlock and even explore so-called flexible ownership models, in which people might share a single car or borrow from a pool of cars instead of owning their own individually. For example, it’s a lot safer simulating dangerous situations in autonomous driving if you need to figure whether a car should hit a wall or a pedestrian. But, it only stores about 25 gigabytes of data per hour which is transmitted back to Ford from the vehicle. “With the size of our fleet, that’s a lot of data,” said Mr.

The company, he said, should have a plan for surviving when hugely populated cities make car ownership unworkable or even illegal. “It’s important for us to have a point of view on what we see as trends, and to make choices today that will bear fruit five or 10 years out,” he said. “And we have to see if there’s a business model there.” The company also announced Thursday that it would give an autonomous car to researchers at Stanford. Ford highlighted some of its work in the connected home in its collaboration with smart thermostat maker and smoke alarm maker Nest, which is headquartered a few blocks away from Ford’s research center. In the past, vehicle data has let Ford engineers glean information on a range of issues, from how drivers are using their vehicles, to the driving environment, to electromagnetic forces affecting the vehicle, and feedback on other road conditions that could help them improve the quality, safety, fuel economy and emissions of the vehicle.

Also announced at the event was news that Ford is forming a partnership with Stanford University to use its Fusion Hybrid Autonomous Research Vehicle for research. Giving engineers access to this information through a common vehicle database or some other means will let them look at data in real time instead of having to send surveys out. At the research center, Ford showed a remote control golf cart from the Georgia Tech campus in Atlanta; virtual reality driving environments that test self-driving car tech; improvements in speech recognition; and devices that attach to bicycles to help the company figure out how bikes interact with cars on the road. Ford said it did not intend to compete with Silicon Valley — Google, for example, has most famously been developing self-driving cars along with in-car technology like Android Autos, and Apple last year released CarPlay. “I don’t think it’s a matter of rivalry. Last week, Reuters reported that Google is in discussion with most of the biggest automakers in the world to speed up the process of getting self-driving cars to market by 2020.

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