Ford Cruises Into Silicon Valley, Revs Up Work On Wired Wheels

Ford is hoping to jump-start a new race in automative mobile tech by way of an outpost in the heart of the nation's tech innovation district--a research lab in Silicon Valley that will help it make better cars and better friends.

Gentlemen and gentlewomen: Start your algorithms.

Car companies, even the speed fiends among them, are notoriously sluggish about adopting new mobile technology. Ford is hoping to jump-start a new race in automative mobile tech by way of an outpost in the heart of the nation's tech innovation district--a research lab in Silicon Valley that will help it make better cars and better friends. Stationed in California, Ford wants to make sure it gets first pick at new tech blossoming at startups in the Valley. The facility, which execs hope will open in the first quarter this year, will supplement Ford's existing R&D facility back at home base in Dearborn, MI. Ford is still hunting for a Valley location to rent and plans to hire 15 people--mostly from the Bay Area--to work in the lab.

Heading the move is K. Venkatesh Prasad, senior tech lead of the Ford Research and Innovation team. Prasad joined Ford after years of experience working on robotics at places like NASA and Caltech. He was a key part of the team that built Ford's SYNC platform, one of the first communication devices which hooked up a car's dashboard to smartphones. But the future he imagines goes much further than that. "Computing and communication-based platforms are going to be connected in ways we can't fathom now," Prasad tells Fast Company. Key to keeping Ford ahead of the curve is to catch tech further upstream, he explains, rather than waiting for folks to come to Dearborn. That is: find and friend them on home turf. "By going there, we could go two or three steps ahead of where we were now," Prasad says.

The move, while about getting the hottest, freshest tech, is also about forging new alliances and partnerships. Prasad says Ford is open to "all kinds of interactions," and will court collaborators at tech firms big and small, as well as researchers at institutions like Stanford and UC Berkeley. In fact, OpenXC, Ford's open source API for automobiles, will be headed up at the Silicon Valley lab and will be shipping out to the University of Michigan, MIT, and Stanford this month. "We're keeping ourselves completely open," Prasad said.

Ford will be looking for innovations that will boost connectivity in cars in three broad areas: safety, infotainment, and eco-saviness. In two of those areas, Ford is already ahead of the curve: Pandora and Ford were early partners in getting the radio app in cars. And Ford has a history of hunting for better and newer materials that will go into car models, like its recent plan to recycle 2 million plastic bottles to upholster the interiors of the Focus Electric. Ford engineers are also building a link-up to a Google predictive algorithm which could help drivers make energy-efficient choices about the routes they take to work or to the grocery store.

Scouts at Ford will be on the lookout for revolutionary new tech that could weave into your space in the next generation of automobiles, but it's equally likely to reach out to existing applications that are built for stationary platforms, that could be modified to hit the road. For their part, startups like Pandora are recognizing the potential of courting carmaker partners as slow-moving, but steady allies in the connectivity business.

Alan Mulally, chief executive of Ford, once told Fast Company: "Tech is why people are going to buy Ford! We're going to be the coolest, most useful app you've ever had, seamlessly keeping you connected."

Planning ahead for future tech would give Ford a speedy head start on the competition.

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about technology and science. Follow on Twitter, Google+.

[Image: Flickr user drburtoni]

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