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Ford: Shaping the future in Silicon Valley

A racing game? No! This is how Ford performs virtual test drives. (Photo: Ford)

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Ford’s heart may still beat in Dearborn, but the head is now located in Palo Alto. In a new research center in Silicon Valley, the carmaker is preparing for the future. One of its current priorities: virtual test drives with autonomous cars.

Ashley Micks’ work is every child’s dream come true. It would appear that she spends her whole day gaming: racing cars on her computer or smartphone – while getting paid for it! But first impressions can be deceiving. Even though her desk is overflowing with games consoles, Micks is no gamer. She is one of more than 200 developers in the new Research and Innovation Center (RIC) in Palo Alto, where Ford is determined to shape the future of mobility.

Their mission: to propel Ford’s transformation from a mere car manufacturer to a mobility service provider – a goal proclaimed by Executive Chairman Bill Ford. “We are at the brink of a revolution similar to the days when my great-grandfather introduced the assembly line production for the Model T,” says Ford. But the mission in Palo Alto today is somewhat different to that of Detroit all those years ago.  Autonomous driving now tops an agenda which also includes connectivity, new mobility concepts and digital user experience.

Ashley Micks spends her work day cruising through a simulated world. (Photo: TG)

On closer inspection, it turns out that the software on Mick’s smartphone is not a racing game. It is in fact, aDRIVE (Autonomous Driving Refined in Virtual Environments), a complex simulation that is supposed to speed up the development of the autopilot. Still, computer games are never too far away: they actually laid the foundations for this simulation. Micks and her team used them to build the virtual test tracks. No wonder pedestrians look like aliens and the test vehicles seem to come straight out of a Hollywood production.

Time and again, Micks takes off on a virtual cruise through the simulated world - complete with pedestrians who crisscross the roads. She monitors which routes the autonomous test cars take; she evaluates the interaction with other road users and examines whether the cars detect the road signs properly in various situations. Above all though, she checks whether they take the appropriate action.

Simulations fast-track the process

Ford’s efforts are by no means confined to a virtual environment: the company is also planning to triple its autonomous vehicle fleet in the real world – making it the largest one in the industry, according to CEO Mark Fields. But aDRIVE opens up even bigger opportunities for Ford: “We do not have 30 but an infinite number of test vehicles,” says Micks. “And we can reconfigure each of them with two or three clicks.” This way, a multitude of situations each with a different software status can be simulated time and again until the developers are happy with the result. This can be achieved without long delays required for modification – and without jeopardizing the safety of other road participants. “The study allows virtual interaction between an autonomous car and pedestrians, replicating real-world situations to better understand and develop responses to some of the unexpected things that can happen on the road,“ Micks concludes.

Since the simulation does not require much computing power and runs like a regular game on Apple’s iOS, most employees have installed the app on their iPhone – and regularly take off on virtual test drives. “We can reach a huge mileage in a very short time span. Way more than we could do with real test cars on real roads,” says Micks. “This allows for more aggressive time lines for validating driving algorithms to prepare for on-road testing.”

The epicenter of innovation

Be it the virtual test rides, the camera-based detection of pedestrians or the fusion of sensor data to obtain a detailed digital depiction of reality: Ford could certainly work on projects like these in either of its two existing innovation centers in Dearborn and in Aachen, Germany. Better still, the company already cooperates with the University of Michigan and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “But Silicon Valley remains the epicenter of technological development,” says Dave Kaminski.

Ford employees can even go on simulated rides on their smartphone. (Photo: Ford)

Along with the former Apple engineer Dragos Maciuca, Kaminski manages the new research center. He praises the very distinctive culture and the know-how of the Bay Area: five elite universities within a 45 minute drive, major corporations like Apple, Google or Skype right around the corner and thousands of start-ups populating the Valley. For Kaminsiki, there is no place on earth that could match this innovative power. “We want to benefit even more from this neighborhood in the future.”

It is for precisely this reason that Ford has stepped up its presence in Silicon Valley. What started in 2012 as a small bridgehead into the new world with a dozen guest workers from Detroit became a full-fledged research center when the RIC opened a year ago. It now employs ten times as many people. Most of them did not start their career at Ford but were recruited in the Valley and bring in some fresh know-how, much to Kaminski’s delight. He goes on to talk about the 200 start-ups that his team is in close contact with.

The car industry: part of the Valley community

This rapid rise from small tech office to research center; from a start-up in a garage to a thriving think-tank, reflects the growing importance of the automotive industry in Silicon Valley. Not that long ago, OEMs were ridiculed as being the giants of yesteryear – guests of the Valley at best. Today, they are considered permanent residents – fully accepted and integrated into the community of researchers and developers. They feel at home in the Valley, says Kaminski. He points to the numbers to back this up: “Just a couple of years ago, a few hundred brilliant minds were working on cars, mobility and autonomous driving here.Today, it's thousands!"

OEMs heavily expand their research activities on digital innovations. Are they focusing too much on Silicon Valley? Or is it a smart move to be as close as possible to the IT industry? How do you see the power of simulation? Is it good enough to largely replace real-world testing for autonomous driving? Discuss with the community in the comment section!

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