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Ford Wants to Sharpen Big Data Skills at its Silicon Valley Innovation Center

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Ford plans to hire 125 people by the end of the year in its new Palo Alto-based research and innovation center. In part, the company wants to improve its Big Data analytics and take that expertise into the rest of the company.

Raj Nair thinks the auto industry can gain a lot by working with Silicon Valley.

As Ford's chief technology officer, Nair directs the company's research and product development efforts. Under his leadership, the company just opened a new center in Palo Alto. By the end of the year, Ford expects to have 125 people working in the center, which would make it one of the biggest auto-industry research facilities in Silicon Valley.

Nair and Ford are betting that by collaborating with local companies and universities and by interacting with local engineers and programmers, the company can make better cars and get ahead of new technology trends. Among the areas that Ford's research center will focus on are autonomous vehicle technologies; connecting the car to the Internet and other devices; and how to manage and use all the data that will be collected by sensors on cars.

Raj Nair, chief technology officer of Ford and group vice president for global product development, is photographed at the grand opening of Ford’s

Raj Nair, chief technology officer of Ford and group vice president for global product development, is photographed at the grand opening of Ford's new Research and Innovation Center in Palo Alto on Jan. 22, 2015. (Troy Wolverton/Bay Area News Group)

At the center's opening last month, Nair spoke with this newspaper about some of those projects, the importance of locating the facility in Silicon Valley, and balancing long-term research with near-term practical applications. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: Ford's research center in Dearborn, Michigan, focuses on things such as advanced electronics and the human-machine interface. Your research center in Aachen, Germany, focuses on powertrains and driver-assistance technologies. How will this research center differ from those?

A: Well, clearly this center will focus a lot on the collaboration opportunities in this area. There are so many partners that are available to us out here in Silicon Valley, whether it be the university partnerships like we just announced with Stanford, the big tech giants that we do work with already, and the entrepreneurial startups and some of the technologies that they're developing.

The intersection of technologies that Silicon Valley grew up with and what that's meaning for the car is really hitting an inflection point. You could argue that the car has become one of the most complex, useful, big-investment consumer electronics devices that a customer can have. That's why I think that synergy makes all the sense in the world. So the areas the research center will focus on are real opportunities for Silicon Valley and Detroit to work together and do some amazing things.

Q: Of the projects the research center will be working on, which are closest to being adopted by the company? Which are further out?

A: Some of the aspects of connectivity are progressing very rapidly. Even some aspects of the semiautonomous technology, we have a lot of that on the road right now. The Focus in the dealers right now is capable of self-parking, both self parallel parking and perpendicular parking, as well as adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping assistance.

The longer-range projects are those that involve changes in personal mobility. Maybe the ride service is more near-term and vehicle ownership model changes are more near term, but some of the fundamental structural changes would be longer term.

Q: One of the dangers of research centers is that they work on projects that end up having no commercial benefit for the company. How do you balance the need to explore new areas with focusing on practical applications?

A: I think we're very conscious of the balance. For a product development organization, we're looking for technologies that are what we would call application- or implementation-ready and being very quick about getting those in the vehicle. But then we're recognizing we don't have a crystal ball, so it is necessary to participate in research and in advanced engineering projects that may not pan out, but at least to focus those in areas we know are going to be relevant to our business.

We always have to play the balance of not over-constraining the project, saying, "You must have a path to production," but at the same time, not letting them get so -- I wouldn't call it pie in the sky, but -- disconnected that even if they were to come in, you're not really sure they would apply to the business.

If you look at some of the technologies that have really done very well for us, such as our EcoBoost engines, that actually came out of our research group. So there's an example of a research project that came all the way through, and now is a fundamental part of our powertrain offering.

Q: Speaking of EcoBoost, powertrains and drives systems don't look like they'll be a focus of this research center. Given that Tesla's a huge presence here and given the focus in the valley on green energy and battery technology, do you see the center here focusing on that technology at some point also?

A: Powertrains are certainly important for our business. So we'd be open to those type of discussions.

We certainly have a lot of interaction on all the technologies you just mentioned, whether it's battery chemistry technologies or fuel cells. Those aren't necessarily all located in Silicon Valley. The nature of powertrain technologies, because of their history, is somewhat centered around the automotive industry. So a lot of those companies are already based where we're based right now.

Contact Troy Wolverton at 408-840-4285. Follow him at

Raj Nair

Age: 50

Birthplace: St. Louis

Position: Chief technology officer and group vice president of global product development at FordPrevious jobs: Vice president of engineering; vice president of operations for Asia Pacific and Africa.Education: B.S. in mechanical engineering, automotive specialty from Kettering University; MBA studies at the University of MichiganFamily: Married, two daughtersResidence: Ann Arbor, Michigan

Five things about Raj Nair

1. Serves on the board of trustees of Kettering University, where he started his automotive industry career 33 years ago as a co-op student.

2. He's a fan of both the St. Louis Cardinals and the Michigan Wolverines.

3. When he was younger, he raced go-karts, Formula Ford and Formula 2000 race cars.

4. He owns an experimental plane that the company doesn't want him to fly.

5. His favorite books among those he's read most recently: "The Martian" by Andy Weir and "Go Like Hell" by A.J. Baime.

Stashed in: Silicon Valley!, Cars!, Palo Alto, Michigan, Ford

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Geez, is there any company NOT building an innovation center in Silicon Valley?

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