Google and Apple’s much-publicised interest in entering the automotive space is both validating and a “wake up call” for the existing industry, says Ford’s vice-president of research and advanced engineering Ken Washington.
Washington made a flying visit to Australia last week for discussions at the Blue Oval’s Melbourne research, design and engineering centre — a site that serves as the blue oval brand’s R&D hub in the entire Asia Pacific region.
Ford’s advanced development chief told local media that Google’s move into autonomous technology, and Apple’s rumoured move beyond CarPlay and into full-on automotive development with an Apple Car, showed how essential it was that existing car OEMs stay focused on developing future tech.
Google has made several autonomous vehicle concepts over the years, beginning with its Toyota Prius mules and leading to its cutesy self-driving shuttle cars, soon to enter more advanced on-road testing. Rumours are swirling also over Apple, and its apparent desire to follow in the wheel tracks of Tesla with a slick electric car.
Ford recently opened its newest site in Palo Alto, part of California’s famed tech hub Silicon Valley, home to the likes of Google, Apple and Facebook, and a plethora of research labs and venture capital firms to boot. Washington worked in the area for a decade in his previous senior role with Lockheed Martin.
“It’s actually pretty exciting to us that there is so much interest from the tech sector in automobiles and the auto sector,” Washington said. “We think its a case of kind of rising all boats… it’s validated the need for us to be in Silicon Valley, which is a pretty special place.”
“It’s very validating to us that tech behemoths like Apple and Google are paying attention to the automotive industry, but that said its also a bit of a wake up call that we don’t have forever to figure out how to take our game to the next level in terms of driving innovation in our business and getting value out of connected cars and doing something real with autonomous vehicle tech.”
Above: Google's self-driving 'car'.
Ford’s Silicon Valley site with have 120 staff by the end of 2015, and in part will be tasked with thinking outside the box and coming up with collaborations — such as the one with home automation lab Nest (owned by Google) that could lead to cars that send a message to your home’s thermostat to adjust the temperature as you approach.
“A smart car and smart home linked together,” as Washington put it.
Washington also spoke about the “building blocks” the company has in place for full vehicle autonomy, such as its radar cruise and blind-spot systems, and spitballed on the idea of geo-fenced business parks where full autonomy could be trialled and broken-in on a large scale, while regulations were sorted through.