Image: Ford
Image: Ford

Ford is attempting to embrace new technology to bring autonomous cars to the mass market. It’s heady stuff. But there is an important aspect to how Ford is applying its strategy. It is embracing start-ups and small tech firms.

‘Not interested, not invented here, thank you’.  That was the response you often got when you were trying to pitch an innovative idea to a company. They had their in-house R&D or product development. And so you said: ‘I have got this start-up,’ and from them came the response, ‘listen kid, we are a multi-billion-dollar company. I don’t think your tiddly start-up can do much for us’. At least that is the gist of what they said, maybe they couched their rejection in words that were a tad more polite.

But we live in surprising times. Technology is changing the world, yet no-one is quite sure how. We live in the era when all good and diligence corporate executives have done their reading, know about innovators’ dilemma – the tale of how market dominant companies can lose their position of strength as up-start companies, with technology honed for quite different applications, move on the incumbents’ turf.

So companies know they have to experiment and they know they have to go outside. The big, mighty companies now know they need to learn, and that the small techs, with whizzy ideas can teach them a lot.

That is why we have seen the rise of corporate backed VC, accelerator schemes and incubators.

And Ford advances its autonomous cars with the help of outsiders. With their help, it is acquiring expertise in advanced algorithms, 3D mapping, LiDAR, and radar and camera sensors:

In parallel, the company from Detroit is embracing Silicon Valley, expanding its campus in Palo Alto, adding two new buildings and 150,000 square feet of work and lab space adjacent to the current Research and Innovation Center.

As for the four partners, they are:

Velodyne: A Silicon Valley-based leader in light detection and ranging (LiDAR) sensors – a bit like Radar, but instead of measuring via echo, LiDAR shines a laser on an object and can measure distance and shape by illuminating an object by laser.

SAIPS: An Israel-based computer vision and machine learning company acquired by Ford to further strengthen its expertise in artificial intelligence and enhance computer vision.

Nirenberg Neuroscience LLC: Ford has an exclusive licensing agreement with Nirenberg Neuroscience, a machine vision company founded by neuroscientist Dr. Sheila Nirenberg, who cracked the neural code the eye uses to transmit visual information to the brain. This has led to a powerful machine vision platform for performing navigation, object recognition, facial recognition and other functions, with many potential applications. For example, it is already being applied by Dr. Nirenberg to develop a device for restoring sight to patients with degenerative diseases of the retina. Ford’s partnership with Nirenberg Neuroscience will help bring humanlike intelligence to the machine learning modules of its autonomous vehicle virtual driver system

Civil Maps: Ford has invested in Berkeley, California-based Civil Maps to further develop high-resolution 3D mapping capabilities. Civil Maps has pioneered an innovative 3D mapping technique that is scalable and more efficient than existing processes. This provides Ford another way to develop high-resolution 3D maps of autonomous vehicle environments.