Ford's Silicon Valley Lab Wants To Mine Your Data

The car company’s new Silicon Valley lab is looking to figure out more about the world from how we drive.

At a time when almost every major automaker is trying to rebrand itself as a mobility or technology company, it shouldn’t be too surprising that Ford opened up a lab in Silicon Valley. But some of the innovations that could come out of the lab in the future, everything from more modular vehicles to microclimate sensing, might surprise you.

Ford’s lab, which just opened in June, is hardly a big operation. Currently, it has just three employees. But it has big plans focused on three areas: big data, user experience, and open-source innovation. On the big-data side, Ford "is interested in using people’s vehicles as data probes. Cars can tell you a lot about the physical world," says T.J. Giuli, the research lab leader. Giuli imagines that data from vehicles could, in the future, be used to study microclimates and urban heat traps, for example.

The lab’s goals for user experience are similarly broad. "We’re interested in exploring how you can make a car more modular, modifiable," says Giuli. "We’re looking at pain points that people have." More specifically, Ford is examining ways to "refresh" older cars with more modular parts. Drivers could one day pop out old steering-wheel buttons and put in new ones, quickly pop out and replace old navigation systems, and so on. If successful, these innovations could increase consumer willingness to hang on to old cars, dramatically reducing waste.

Ford’s open-source-innovation project, OpenXC, relates to everything else the Silicon Valley lab is working on. According to Giuli, Ford wants "Silicon Valley developers to take advantage of the wealth of data found in cars," creating all sorts of apps that use in-car sensors. The Wall Street Journal gives the example of an app that turns down music when it senses that a driver is speeding.

The Silicon Valley lab doesn’t have much work to show off yet, but that will change soon. "At this point it’s about scaling up and growing so that we can support more projects," says Giuli.

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  • John Eaton

    Really? Ford's still looking at modularity? In Silly Valley?

    Gotta share a few points: Chrysler, for example, has about 25 nameplates, i.e. individual vehicle models across the Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep, RAM and Fiat brands. A few of them share platforms, regionally and/or globally, with many or most of the components nearly identical between them. It's that way to save cost and complexity, obviously, but there are still unique brand cues (color, style, content) that need to be in place to attract particular consumers/buyers. Got it. The notion of customization -- or differentiation, or whatever -- is why the aftermarket exists, because OEMs can't afford to offer so many variations to satisfy an extremely small buyer slice. The Build-to-Order concept has been tried with marginal success (Scion/Mini notwithstanding), and on the flip side recall that GM got slammed not that long ago for "brand managing" itself downward to bland, look-alike mobile junk heaps. Add to that three other points -- the "cash for clunkers" program took a whole bunch of older cars off the road a few years ago, and no amount of personalization was going to convince owners to keep them; data hasn't shown that people are overwhelmingly choosing to keep their vehicles longer than before, so the value of "freshening" your car (inside or out) is vague; but data is showing that younger people in general are really not that into cars anymore, since (1) their version of connectivity is electronic, not physical, (2) if they do need to go somewhere its probably via public transportation, and (3) basically cars cost too much to buy and own, and jobs are tight, and don't forget those student loans.

    I guess that's it. Oh wait...automakers make money by selling NEW cars and trucks, dealerships make money by remarketing. If Ford wants to increase its branded aftermarket business then maybe they could look at consumer affinity to swapping buttons. Otherwise, increasing the consumers willingness to "plug-n-play" their car's interior just to keep it another couple of years defeats the OEMs bottom line. Hmmm...some of that other research might be fun and useful, but I question this one.