Ford revs up its Silicon Valley innovation center

PALO ALTO, Calif. (KGO) -- Ford is the latest automaker to recognize Silicon Valley for its innovation focus. It unveiled a new center there Thursday to forge relationships with local companies and universities. And like BMW, VW and others already in the valley, it's anxious to come up with high-tech cars of the future.

Ford first set up a small office in Palo Alto with a dozen employees three years ago. The goal now is to have a team of 125 in place later this year.

Ford President & CEO Mark Fields told me that connected and autonomous cars of the future, connected to the cloud, will be full of cutting edge technology. Consumers will also need to update their vehicles regularly.

"How do we make it convenient for them? How do we do these over-the-air updates just like you get on your smartphone to keep your vehicle almost to the point it gets better with age?" said Fields.

Ford is already working on computer-based systems to improve self-driving or autonomous vehicles so testing doesn't have to be on the road.

One thing that Ford and its partners are working on is the use of more natural language voice recognition so that you can control various features of the vehicle. For example, if you want more lumbar support in the seat, you just say, 'I want more lumbar support.' Then if it isn't enough, you can just say, 'more please,' and it will understand the command in context.

Ford will be competing with other automakers in Silicon Valley to attract engineering talent to come up with the best technology. It's a big challenge because systems will need to be reliable, safe and time-tested. Otherwise, there's a big liability issue if something goes wrong.

"They can't do a release 1 and then a 1.1. They have to put something out there that's going that's pretty much going to stay for 10 years, and be warrantable so they can't be sued. They will be sued, but they'd like to be sued less often," said auto industry analyst Brian Douglas.

Ford employees in Silicon Valley will work in conjunction with its other innovation centers in Germany and in Michigan.
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