Ford Motor launches Palo Alto unit to tap into Silicon Valley talent, brainpower

Ford Motor will launch a Silicon Valley subsidiary in Palo Alto, an example of the latest quest of American, European and Japanese automakers to tap into the technology brainpower and talent in the Bay Area.

The new unit is called Ford Smart Mobility and will have its head offices in Palo Alto, according to Michigan-based Ford Motor.

“These sorts of things have been going on for a long time, since the 1990s, but these efforts have accelerated now, ” Tim Bajarin, principal analyst with Campbell-based Creative Strategies, a tech market researcher, told this blog. “Silicon Valley’s position as a worldwide technology center has only been amplified over the last 10 or 15 years. The Bay Area now has the largest pool of engineering talent in the world.”

Ford Smart Mobility will design, grow, build and invest in new mobility, services, Ford officials said.

“Legacy companies like a Ford, General Motors, Toyota, European automaker, want to see what role Silicon Valley’s technology will play in their future,” Bajarin said. “They almost always want to set up a research lab or some sort of development group to tap into these resources.”

The new unit is part of a Ford expanded business model aimed at transforming the Rust Belt icon into both an automotive and a mobility company. The chairman of Ford Smart Mobility is Ford board member Jim Hackett, a former executive with Michigan-based Steelcase, a furniture manufacturer.

“Ford Smart Mobility and expanding into mobility services are significant growth opportunities,” said Mark Fields, Ford’s chief executive officer.

The automotive giant aims to invade an array of emerging markets, including self-driving vehicles, mobility and vehicle connectivity. It also seeks new ventures in data and analytics.

“Our plan is to quickly become part of the growing transportation services market, which already accounts for $5.4 trillion in annual revenue,” Fields said.

Ford’s subsidiary in Palo Alto will develop commercially ready mobility services and invest in promising mobility-related ventures, the auto giant said. The new unit will be designed to compete in the manner of a startup company.

This year, Ford will have autonomous vehicles on the road in California, Arizona and Michigan, which Ford says would be the largest fleet of self-driving vehicles of any automaker. The company also is testing autonomous vehicle driving in the snow. Ford also has launched pilot tests in London to enable motorists to predict the best places to park in that vast urban center, as well as ride sharing efforts.

Ford also offers connectivity technologies that enable drivers to remotely start, unlock, check fuel levels, or locate a parked vehicle with a smart phone.

“These auto companies want to consult with Silicon Valley, they want to understand the technology and see whether it can be licensed or has to be built from within, and to tap into the actual workforce who could help them implement and execute technologies in the future,” Bajarin said. “You constantly see executives from all over the world coming here to meet with Apple, Intel, Google, Oracle. They need that interaction.”


Photo: Ford’s autonomous Ford Fusion Hybrid vehicle


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