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Ford's Research And Innovation Center Has Become An Audition Stage For Startups' Interface Technology

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Part of Ford's mission to expand from an automaker into a mobility company is pushing the envelope on its user interface experience.

The company already touts its Ford Sync 3, allowing drivers to seamlessly interact with in-car technology, and AppLink, which connects vehicles and smartphones, bringing apps from your mobile device onto the center console-mounted touch screen. Those two interface systems will be heightened by Ford's impending introduction of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.

Along those lines, Ford's Research and Innovation Center in Silicon Valley has doubled as a Shark Tank-like audition stage, where startups are visiting in droves, looking to showcase the benefits of their technology and how it could boost the interface experience for Ford drivers.

On the receiving end of those pitches and technology demonstrations is Jennifer Brace, Ford's user interface supervisor, and her colleagues.

"We get a lot of startups coming into the office, showing us the latest thing that they're working on. We get to see what startups are looking at and what a lot of companies are thinking about when it comes to what could be next," Brace told us about companies' regular tech demonstrations at Ford's Research and Innovation Center in Palo Alto, California. "Sometimes we think that the ideas are a little off the wall and they might not be ready for a vehicle yet, but it's still really interesting to see what people are looking at. You're seeing a lot of people bring up gestures and wearable devices."

Brace specifically mentioned a gesture-controlled ring device that a startup presented before her, showing how drivers could perform different interface functions while in their vehicle. Although it looked cool, it's probably a bit too much for the company at this point.

"When it comes to interface and interaction, I think the best experience that we could bring to the customer is for it to be so easy that they almost don't even think about it," Brace said. "The vehicle is a place where it needs to be as seamless and as painless as possible. There has to be no learning curve."

She added: "It's not the place to unleash some brand-new interaction technology that nobody has ever seen or to bring about a technology for technology's sake."

Overall, Ford's interface experts are really honing in on bringing apps from your smartphones into your cars for an all-encompassing interface experience behind the wheel.

"We're focused on brought-in technology, so things that are happening on your phone and being able to bring those things in and enable them, while you're driving to make that transition easier," Brace said of Ford segueing from an automaker to a mobility company. "And then, of course, we're also enabling connections outside the vehicle. So, we're taking a multi-pronged approach there to make sure the technology is there at your fingertips and that you're still feeling connected to this ever-growing technology world that you're in."

Already, Ford has rolled out an Amazon Echo connection via AppLink and has the red carpet rolled out to other companies looking to collaborate.

"We are absolutely open to working with any company that we think will make our product better," Brace said. "Happy to listen to and talk to anybody who will listen to us. We get hundreds coming to our doors in a year in our Silicon Valley office alone. It all comes down to what's going to improve our vehicles and company profile."

But while interface enhancements are intended to bring a more pleasurable experience to drivers, they can also be the access point of a cybersecurity hack and compromise - as seen with a Jeep Cherokee being manipulated by two hackers during a Wired experiment last summer. That's a situation that Ford's interface team and other companies in the auto industry want to avoid at all costs.

"Ford has long been aware of security threats to connected vehicles and takes cybersecurity very seriously by consistently working to mitigate the risk," Ford sent us in a statement about their security. "We focus on security of our customers before the introduction of any new technology feature by instituting policies, procedures and safeguards to help ensure their protection. We are not aware of any instance in which a Ford vehicle was infiltrated or compromised in the field."

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