Why Ford is Growing its Silicon Valley Research Center

By Brian Steiner |  March 18, 2015

In January, Ford began an ambitious expansion of its Research & Innovation Center in the heart of Silicon Valley, hoping to assemble a team of about 125 engineers this year.

The goals for the Palo Alto lab, which opened as a small outpost in 2012? To better understand how we drive, how we interact with the existing electronics inside the vehicles and the ones we bring onboard, and how we communicate. Self-driving vehicles are also part of the picture.

“Palo Alto is important to us because it’s our way of connecting into a very vibrant network of innovation that occurs in the culture of Silicon Valley,” says Jim Buczkowski, Director of Electrical and Electronics Systems at Ford’s Research and Advanced Engineering division. That includes relationships with both tech companies and academic institutions. “Being there is a necessary component of being able to pick up what’s going on,” he says.

Transportation Megatrends

In expanding its presence in Silicon Valley, Buczkowski says Ford hopes to accelerate work on its Smart Mobility initiative, which encompasses technologies like connectivity, mobility, autonomous vehicles, and data mining. Announced at the Consumer Electronics Show earlier this year, the initiative aims to launch 25 experiments that will test new ideas in transportation — and shape Ford’s future investments. The experiments all focus on what Ford sees as four global megatrends in urban areas:

  • Explosive population growth
  • An expanding middle class
  • Air quality and public health concerns
  • Changing customer attitudes and priorities.

Valley Partnerships

In Palo Alto, Ford has already been partnering with nearby organizations like Nest Labs. Owned by Google, and located less than two blocks away from Ford’s facility, Nest is a pioneer in home automation. Its smart thermostats use artificial intelligence software to learn about the lifestyles of its users, then adjusts their home temperature settings throughout the day to optimize energy usage and comfort.

Ford and Nest want customers’ cars to talk to their home’s thermostat to let it know when they’re heading home from work, or leaving home for a ball game, so it automatically adjusts the temperature settings. The concept is part of the “Internet of Things” or “connected devices” phenomenon. “If you’re leaving in your car, the car will be able to report to Nest that you’re leaving your house so it has a better signal, or an additional signal, to go into that ‘away mode’ a little faster, which can save you some energy,” Buczkowski says.

Another project created a “green energy” app that would track when renewable energy is most available on the electrical grid, and encourage users to schedule vehicle charging during these periods.

And there are collaborations with universities, like recent work with Carnegie Mellon’s Silicon Valley campus on next-generation speech interfaces.

Traffic and parking represent another rich vein for researchers at the Palo Alto lab. As cities collect more data on road conditions and traffic tie-ups, Buczkowski says Ford’s engineers are learning how to use this information to reduce some of the perennial headaches of driving. “Part of our mobility projects are collecting [information] and trying to learn about parking. A lot of congestion is created just by people looking for parking spaces,” he says.

Using existing sensors on cars, along with data collection techniques like crowd-sourcing, Ford’s engineers in experiments have been able to deliver information about open parking spaces in real-time to cars out on city streets, he says.

Connecting to Headquarters

The R&D facility in Palo Alto joins other Ford research labs in Dearborn, Michigan, and Aachen, Germany, that have been working to develop new safety technologies featured in some of today’s Ford automobiles. For example, voice control interfaces and drowsy driving detectors grew out of driving simulator research at those facilities, Buczkowski says. The leaders of the Palo Alto lab report in to Ford’s Research and Advanced Engineering leadership team, which is headed by Ken Washington, vice president of Ford Research and Advanced Engineering.

Key to the success of the Silicon Valley lab, Ford says, will be strong connections to the mothership — Ford headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan. That happens through regular conference calls, videoconferences, and old-school face-to-face visits. Ford CEO Mark Fields and CTO Raj Nair visit the facility at least once a quarter, and members of the Michigan-based Research and Advanced Engineering leadership team visit at least monthly.