Ford lab ventures into Silicon Valley

July 13 10:57 2015

Ford is capitalizing on the power of a Silicon Valley address and the techie neighbors that come with it. The automaker opened a Research and Innovation Center in Palo Alto, Calif., in January, now breathing the same air as neighbors such as Google, Tesla, Skype, Nest, Hewlett-Packard, Apple and Stanford University. “We will have one of the largest automotive presences in Silicon Valley by the end of the year,” said CEO Mark Fields. “We really want to be part of the community. We view ourselves both as an automotive company and a mobility company.”127575-10-ford-motor-company

Early evidence suggests becoming part of the tech ecosystem is having an immediate impact on employees, products and speed to market while changing the perception of Ford inside and outside the company. The number of patents per employee is substantially higher than at other Ford facilities; partnerships are being formed with nontraditional suppliers and there is an energy in Palo Alto that the automaker hopes to infuse across its more established facilities, including in Dearborn.

“It is a little bit magical to be there,” said Richard Haas, who spent most of his career with Ford before moving to Silicon Valley to work for Tesla. He is now with Mahindra & Mahindra, an India-based automaker. Silicon Valley encourages free thinking and entrepreneurship. “It is a start-up incubator,” Haas said, attracting people who go from start-up to start-up, putting in as many as 15 years of sweat in pursuit of the great idea that becomes a success and makes them rich. It is a different mindset from the Detroit model of stability, he said. “It is a cultural thing in Silicon Valley. They don’t mind re-creating themselves every few years.”

“Ford has become embedded in the ecosystem,” said Ken Washington, who joined Ford last year as the new head of research and advanced engineering. He previously spent a decade in Silicon Valley literally around the corner at Lockheed Martin and at Sandia, a national research lab. “There are partnerships that can only be done here,” Washington said. They happen because people literally bump into each other in coffee shops and cafeterias. Meetings are easily set up to explore ideas and partnerships.