Silicon Valley Is the New Detroit

Ford is heading to Silicon Valley to open a new research lab, and the car computers they hope to build will do a lot more than help you find radio stations more quickly or improve your gas mileage.

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Ford is heading to Silicon Valley to open a new research lab, and the car computers they hope to build will do a lot more than help you find radio stations more quickly or improve your gas mileage. The future of in-car computing looks not unlike the future of phones (all app-ready, cloud-powered and touchscreen-enabled) and to get there, it's not only Ford that's heading West to team up with companies like Microsoft and Apple. The Dearborn, Michigan, company is just the latest major car manufacturer to go all start-up by opening a technology office in the Bay Area, joining global brands like BMW, General Motors and Nissan-Renault. When you add the myriad Silicon Valley startups that would be eager to build business models around the multi-billion dollar automotive industry, you wouldn't believe how futuristics cars can get. The way the spokespeople talk about it, it sounds like car computers are heading into Jetsons territory (if only the cars could fly, right?) but what exists so far tends to revolve around the radio quite a bit.


To stick to the news, Ford is going all-American in its pursuit to win the car technology race. In addition to Friday's news that the company would take to Silicon Valley to tap into the startup culture, the company's expansion will span the West Coast. "The lab will work with Ford headquarters as well as its design studio in Southern California and its office at Microsoft Corp. in Washington," says Dee-Ann Durbin with the Associated Press. "Microsoft and Ford jointly developed Ford's Sync voice-activated entertainment system and My Ford Touch touch-screen dashboard." Of course, Ford has been working with Microsoft for years; Bill Gates' old crew helped Ford build the SYNC system that's so far a little bit like Siri, a little bit like a radio and not really at all like Windows. The company unveiled the latest version at the Consumer Electronics Show last January. With news of the startup-style office and CES 2012 starting on January 10, we're guessing it's time for an update.


The Germans are really good at cars, but since America is awesome at computers, BMW moved some of its top research and development duties to Silicon Valley way back in 1998, when the company opened its first Bay Area technology office near Stanford's campus. By hiring Dr. Bernardo to helm a Palo Alto office in 2005, the company formed the BMW Group California Innovation Triangle -- Engineering and Emissions Test Center in Oxnard and DesignworksUSA in Newbury Park made up the other two parts of the trio -- that seemed both focused on building more efficient engines as well as simple things like finding a better way to plug and iPod into the car. The world's come a long way since the iPod, and so has BMW. In an interview with TechCrunch, the company explained how its R&D team worked "like a startup" and builds prototypes in-house. Now, instead of iPods, the company's all about Pandora integration, and we're hoping they come up with something cooler soon. At least, the existing on board computer system is full of fun Easter Eggs!

Renault-Nissan Alliance

Bringing France and Japan into the mix, the Renault-Nissan Alliance hope to set themselves apart from its international competitors with a massive investment in green technology. Since the alliance formed in 1999, the company's invested about $5.4 billion in the goal to sell half a million zero-emission cars by 2013 technology, but given that the company's R&D labs in Mountain View are directly across the street from Google, we wouldn't be too surprised if the next Nissan Leaf drove itself. (Okay, we'd actually be incredibly surprised.) As one analyst pointed out recently, though, experimenting with on board computers in cars that people drive is a little riskier than the crazy things happening in the Google Labs. "If your cell phone or computer crashes, it's a couple of minutes. If the telematics crashes, your car could go off the road. There's a very different cost to the technology that's running it," warned Dave Hurst in discussing the future of telematics, which is basically a fancy word for technology improvements for communication and safety. "The automakers are going to want to take their time to study it from every angle, whereas, in the Silicon Valley, they'll say, 'Let's throw it up there and see what comes up.' But all of that is slowly fading and people are coming to a consensus."

Note: We've left off all concept car sorts of things here, but Audi-Volkswagen (who also have a Silicon Valley lab) is up to some seriously futuristic stuff on that front.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.