Ford to Open New Research Lab in Silicon Valley

The Ford Motor Company announced Friday that it plans to open its first-ever dedicated R&D center on the West Coast in Silicon Valley early this year—a move in line with the automaker’s vision of becoming a company that builds mobile computers on wheels.

K. Venkatesh Prasad, senior technical leader for open innovation with Ford Research and Innovation, the company’s advanced engineering arm, says the idea of opening a research lab in the Bay Area has been percolating for some time, waiting for the technology that facilitates programmable interaction between devices and cloud computing to mature.

“We’re ready to be in the Valley to shape and accelerate the delivery of automotive features,” Prasad says. “The timing is appropriate now.”

Ford intends for the lab to serve as a hub for independent technology projects, as well as a base from which to seek new research and investment partners located throughout the region. Prasad imagines that the Silicon Valley location will link the existing supply base with “new friends—not the people who would typically show up here in Detroit.”

“The most exciting thing is the potential for really interesting interactions with startups,” Prasad says, adding that if a startup has a particularly compelling idea that’s not up to scale, Ford is willing to step in and co-create.

The ultimate goal is for the new Silicon Valley lab to create an “innovation network” connecting Ford’s Advanced Design Studio in Irvine, CA, and Ford employees working with connectivity-platform partner Microsoft in Redmond, WA. Ford also plans to partner with Stanford and other Bay Area universities.

Competitor General Motors opened an “advanced technology” office in Palo Alto, CA, in 2006. Numerous European and Japanese carmakers also have outposts in Silicon Valley.

Prasad says that, like a typical startup, the Ford lab currently has two employees. He expects to have an infrastructure in place by the middle of the year. Ford plans to recruit local employees in addition to rotating in employees from other existing Ford locations.

Prasad emphasizes the Silicon Valley office will be dedicated to “new experiences in the marketplace,” whether they involve mobility, connectivity, safety, energy storage, or affordability.

“We don’t want to duplicate efforts in other areas, but to look and learn from Silicon Valley,” Prasad says. “There’s a whole new opportunity in consumer demand. Now we have a passport to enter a new frontier and explore together.”

Ford President and CEO Alan Mulally will elaborate on the new areas of focus for the Silicon Valley lab, plus Ford’s latest technologies, in Las Vegas at the consumer electronics tradeshow International CES on Wednesday.

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