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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.