Ford opens new research center in Palo Alto

Company plans to have 125 employees at Hillview Avenue facility by end of the year

Seeking to hit the gas pedal on new technologies such as self-driving cars and immerse itself in Silicon Valley's big-data culture, Ford Motor Company on Thursday opened its new Research and Innovation Center in Palo Alto.

The new facility at 3200 Hillview Ave. is a dramatic expansion for Ford's local operation, which since 2012 included about a dozen researchers and engineers. According to Ford, the center plans to have about 125 researchers, engineers and scientists working at the Stanford Research Center site by the end of the year, making the new facility one of the "largely automotive manufacturer research center in Silicon Valley." The company also announced that a further expansion is planned "in the near future."

The new center will be led by engineer Dragus Maciuca, most recently from Apple, and will focus on "connectivity, mobility, autonomous vehicles, customer experience and big data."

Mark Fields, the company's president and CEO, said the company views itself as "both a mobility and an auto company, as we drive innovation in every part of our business."

One of the projects that the company is working on includes a Nest thermostat that connects the car to the home and automatically adjusts the home temperature when the driver is about to arrive or leave, based on preferences.

The company has also plunged into the self-driving-vehicle market and contributed a Fusion Autonomous Research Vehicle to a Stanford team that is testing the various required planning-and-prediction algorithms.

The company's Palo Alto team has recently developed a virtual test environment called aDRIVE that resembles a video game and that allows the company to "test algorithms such as traffic sign recognition in dynamic driving situations," according to the company's announcement.

The company's Palo Alto-based engineers are also reportedly developing sensor kits to gather information from bicyclists and other common forms of urban transportation, including wheel speed, acceleration and altitude. The data, according to the company, can "provide insight into how alternate modes of transportation might be best positioned to serve future urban mobility needs."

Fields said in a statement that the new research center "shows Ford's commitment to be part of the Silicon Valley innovation ecosystem – anticipating customers' wants and needs, especially on connectivity, mobility and autonomous vehicles."

"We are working to make these new technologies accessible to everyone, not just luxury customers," Fields said.

Raj Nair, Ford's vice president for global product development and chief technical officer, said future mobility solutions will require "fresh ideas and vigorous collaboration between researchers inside Ford and with other technology leaders outside the automotive industry."

"Our Palo Alto research team will build on existing relationships with universities and technology companies, and forge new ones to help us create and apply the appropriate technology working together," Nair said in a statement.

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