Ford, Serious About Smart Cars, Stakes Out A Place in Silicon Valley

 

About this time last year, the Ford Motor Co. was making a big splash with its Sync with My Ford Touch system. The technology was the closest thing available to the awe-inspiring functionality of K.I.T.T. from Knight Rider. The reconfigurable, voice-operated “ghost in the machine” let drivers keep their hands at 10 and 2 and their eyes on the road while making phone calls, sending and receiving text messages, and getting turn-by-turn directions—just to mention a few of its myriad functions. Just say the word, and Sync was on the case.

This year, Ford is offering even more proof that cars will continue to morph into elegantly designed mobile computers dependent on chips, sensors, displays, and memory for safety, performance, and entertainment. The automaker announced on 6 January that it plans to open a research lab in Silicon Valley whose initial aims will be to better integrate handheld devices into cars and to improve warning systems meant to keep cars from crashing. The lab will also serve as Ford’s proving ground for automotive apps. One example is an app that will, in conjunction with a parking garage, identify an unoccupied space and reserve it.

“This is a very natural extension into one of the most innovative communities in the world,” says Paul Mascarenas, Ford’s CTO. Mascarenas went on to say that it was important that the lab be located in Silicon Valley so that free-thinking and experimentation would be considered part of the ground rules rather than a potentially career-ending risk. A good idea when you consider that the area's quick-turn, idea-to-invention culture is anathema to Detroit, where it takes about five years to bring a new vehicle to market.

But the work arrangement suggests that the executives at Ford’s Dearborn, Mich., headquarters still plan to keep a close eye on what the researchers will be cooking up in the shadow of Stanford University. While some of the personnel will be recruited from the Silicon Valley area and work there exclusively, others will split time between the mothership and the outpost. As IEEE Spectrum reported last October, there are several reasons why Silicon Valley won't be the next Detroit. Among them:

"Silicon Valley may have proficient coders oozing out of every condo complex, but it lacks—and isn’t likely to develop—large numbers of engineers with the right mix of automotive mechatronics and high-voltage systems skills."

Researchers at the new lab, which will open later this year, will collaborate with designers at Ford’s Southern California design studio, as well as their counterparts embedded at the Washington State offices of Microsoft, Ford’s partner in the development of Sync voice technology and the My Ford Touch touchscreen dashboard display.

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