Ford’s Silicon Valley Center Looks to Hire 125, Catalyze Company

Ford officially opened its Research and Innovation Center in Palo Alto, CA, on Friday. Although the automaker first announced the center two years ago, its mission has since solidified.

In addition to building relationships with Silicon Valley “thought leaders,” says Ken Washington, Ford’s vice president of research and advanced engineering, the company’s researchers in Palo Alto will also work on autonomous vehicles, connectivity, mobility, customer experience, and big data. According to Washington, the research center will bring all of those threads together as part of Ford’s mobility plan, recently announced at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas earlier this month.

“We think of 2012 and the initial group hired as a startup,” Washington says. “It was our entry into Silicon Valley. We did a lot of learning, and we established relationships and became part of the community.”

Now, Washington says, Ford is transitioning from early startup to execution. Ford has committed to hiring 125 people to staff the research center by the end of the year. One new hire Washington seems particularly pleased with is Dragos Maciuca, who Washington met years ago when they both worked for Lockheed Martin. Maciuca left Lockheed for Apple, and now he’ll lead the technology team at Ford’s research center. “He’s a very creative thinker and a strong engineer,” Washington says.

The projects that researchers will work on in Palo Alto vary. One involves autonomous vehicle research and analytics in partnership with Stanford University. Another involves testing Ford’s remote repositioning mobility experiment: a person sitting in the Palo Alto laboratory can access real-time streaming video to drive Opengolf carts thousands of miles away at Georgia Institute of Technology. This could help lead to more affordable and effective ways to manage car-sharing initiatives, or even park vehicles remotely as a new form of valet parking.

Ford’s Silicon Valley researchers are also working on integrating the Nest app into vehicles to allow drivers to manage home energy or emergency systems. They’re developing an embedded speech recognition program with Carnegie Mellon-Silicon Valley. And they are testing a human-machine interface to better understand what customers want when they interact with their vehicles.. Ford also continues to use its OpenXC platform to analyze how customers are using their vehicles.

Washington says the overarching goal at the research center is for the experiments being conducted to bear fruit and increase customer satisfaction with the company’s mobility and connectivity features. Employees who work at Ford’s other research centers in Dearborn, MI, and Aachen, Germany, will spend time in Silicon Valley in an attempt to spread the Bay Area’s innovative vibe.

“Part of the strategy is to create learning across the whole business,” he says. “We plan to bring people from Dearborn and Aachen to Palo Alto, and then send them back. We hope it’ll be a catalyst for adopting a Silicon Valley mindset across the whole company.”

Sarah Schmid Stevenson is the editor of Xconomy Detroit/Ann Arbor. You can reach her at 313-570-9823 or sschmid@xconomy.com. Follow @XconomyDET_AA

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  • Pablo

    I consider touch screens in autos to be dangerous. A button or knob can be located by touch without taking your eyes off the road.