Ford Seeks Silicon Valley Credibility With Office Beanbags

Ford Motor Co. Chief Executive Officer Mark Fields said the second-largest U.S. automaker needs a presence in the heart of the technology industry to be a part of Northern California’s innovative culture.

Fields was in Palo Alto on Thursday to christen Ford’s new Research and Innovation Center -- replete with red beanbag chairs -- where the Dearborn, Michigan-based automaker will employ 125 people by the end of the year. That will give Ford one of the largest dedicated automotive research teams in the area.

“As we think about coming here to Silicon Valley, we want to be viewed as part of the ecosystem here,” said Fields, who has been visiting the Valley at least once a quarter. “I’m struck by the fact that the valley is a marketplace of ideas, and it’s really important to be here and be a part of that.”

Almost all of the major automakers have technology centers in Silicon Valley, where the idea of increased connectivity -- often referred to as the “Internet of Things” -- is all the rage and extends to the connected car. Companies such as Mountain View, California-based Google Inc. and Palo Alto-based Tesla Motors Inc. are at the forefront of efforts to develop “self-driving,” or autonomous cars.

Volkswagen AG has an Electronics Research Laboratory in Belmont, while General Motors Co. has an Advanced Technology Lab in Palo Alto. Ford first established a Silicon Valley presence two years ago with an eight-person office.

The new space has 20 employees on the campus of the Stanford Research Park. It’s reminiscent of many Silicon Valley start-ups, with its open floor plan, abundant natural light and free snacks for employees. Ford declined to reveal the size of its investment in the new facility.

Cool Enough?

When asked if Ford is cool enough to attract top Silicon Valley engineering talent, Fields said “Absolutely, I think Ford is cool!” to the applause of employees.

“You can do meaningful work and have a great career at Ford,” he said. “We’re a big, global, multinational company.”

Fields said Ford is eager to collaborate with and learn from other companies in Silicon Valley, from having vehicles integrate with the Nest Thermostat to talking with car-sharing services like Lyft and Uber.

“We’re looking at these things like car-sharing not as threats, but as opportunities,” said Fields. “Is there a role for Ford in some of these things?

‘‘It will be one of the biggest automotive offices in Silicon Valley in terms of manpower,’’ said Thilo Koslowski, an analyst at Gartner who attended the event. ‘‘But size isn’t the only thing that matters. What’s important is how all of this collaboration and innovation is translated back to the mothership in Detroit.”

Apple Hire

Dragos Maciuca will lead the new center. He joins Ford from Apple Inc. with a background in consumer electronics, semiconductor manufacturing, aerospace and automotive.

Non-automotive industrial companies have also opened Silicon Valley offices to tap into the local talent pool. General Electric Co. aims to add billions of dollars of sales for its business that helps customers use data collected from its equipment. CEO Jeffrey Immelt has invested $1 billion in the so-called industrial Internet.

Earlier this month, Fields said the auto industry would introduce a self-driving car within five years -- and Ford would not be first to do so.

“Fully autonomous vehicles are a real possibility,” Fields said at a Jan. 5 dinner on the eve of the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. “Probably, in the next five years, you’ll see somebody introduce autonomous vehicles.”

— With assistance by Dana Hull

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