Ford sets up incubator to work with Israeli startups

Bill Ford Photo: Eitan Nadav

In Tel Aviv, Bill Ford, Ford chairman and great grandson of Henry Ford, spoke about the role of the carmaker's new Israel research center.

"The auto industry has changed dramatically in the past five years. Everything that we took for granted has changed, and will continue to change. It will be an interesting journey, but no company is capable of doing it alone, so we need cooperative ventures," said Ford Motor Company executive chairman Bill Ford at at the launch of the company's research center in Tel Aviv.

Ford, great-grandson of company founder Henry Ford, has chaired his company since 1999. He spoke at the event, and then met journalists. He said, "The new center will serve as a research incubator that will work in cooperation with Ford's research and development teams throughout the world to promote the capabilities of Ford products by finding technologies and startups in connectivity, sensors, in-vehicle monitoring, and cybersecurity. The center is important for us, because early stage companies don't know how to approach us.

"We're looking for cooperative ventures with companies that are not obviously connected to auto-tech, but have capabilities for enhancing the customer experience. You can't fall in love with technology for its own sake; you have to make life easier and more enjoyable. You also have to consider whether this technology makes society better; otherwise, it shouldn't exist. E-scooters make some people's lives good, but do they benefit everyone? That's open to question. To a large extent, it aggravates transportation problems. If we fall in love with the technology and leave the human being out, we'll live in a dystopian society," Ford said.

The auto industry has been deeply engrossed in the race for the autonomous vehicle for some years, together with the technology giants that have been developing components for it. Companies such as Intel and Nvidia, which have offices in Israel, are operating in these areas, and are developing specially designed chips for the autonomous vehicle. Mobileye, a global leader in the basic driver assistance systems market, was acquired by Intel for exactly this purpose - to make Intel a supplier of hardware for an autonomous vehicle.

"Globes": When do you think the autonomous vehicle will go on the road?

Bill Ford: "The technology is developing rapidly and all the problems that must be solved are being solved, but two or three years ago, there were already predictions that there would be vehicles, and these had to be rolled back. We haven't gone back on the forecasts. There were things that proved to be more difficult than they said ahead of time. This isn't developing software, in which you can expect a quality level of 75% and fix things later. You can't play with this. We'll see the first vehicles at low speeds and in good weather, and the improvement will come at a more advanced stage."

"It's necessary to create a vehicle experience with all five senses"

The acquisition of Mobileye was one of the growth engines of Israeli auto tech, in which there are hundreds of startups. This is one of the main reason that several major auto companies are already operating centers in Israel in competition with the technology giants for local talents and technologies.

The companies operating in Israel are headed by General Motors, which founded an R&D center in Israel 11 years ago, and operates experimental Cadillac and Chevrolet vehicles; BMW, which is on track to begin operation of a fleet of test autonomous vehicles in Israel by the end of the year, while simultaneously launching an R&D center here; and Volkswagen, which invested $300 million in Gett in 2016, founded an innovation center a year ago, and operates a joint project with Champion Motors and Mobileye. Direct representatives of over 20 carmakers and suppliers operate in Israel in an effort to locate technologies and investment or acquisitions opportunities.

Ford announced that the research center in Israel would work in cooperation with its SAIPS subsidiary, led by founder and CEO Udy Danino, who was also appointed technical manager of the new center in Israel. SAIPS is a machine learning and vision solutions company acquired by Ford three years ago. The center will have a vehicle lab, which will enable people in the research center to carry out feasibility tests, and will also be available to SAIPS in order to continue progress in work on the autonomous vehicle. The center follows already existing Ford centers in Germany, China, and the US.

In your speech, you talked about the importance of partners. Can you be specific and say what is in the pipeline?

"In an autonomous vehicle, people think about the vehicle and the complexity of the driving experience, but that's only part of the equation. Is there any significance to the brand name in the current era? The answer is yes, but in order to manage to do this, you have to create an experience that includes all five senses. Startups that have no connection to the industry therefore have a bigger opportunity. Something produced in the entertainment fields is likely to be of interest to us in a way that does not appear obvious at present. The change is so quick that by the time we acquire and understand it, someone else will do something more innovative."

One of the senior executives at Ford was quoted as predicting that the company would have robots for deliveries and an autonomous vehicle by 2021. Is this forecast still valid?

"We're working on it. A few weeks ago, there was a robot that already transferred objects. One of the problems that has to be solved is the last mile - what is called micro-mobility. The problem is that it creates chaos. People leave e-scooters everywhere, and it's not clear whether they can drive on the sidewalk or on the road, but this is one of the attempts to solve the problem, and there will be additional efforts. The solution may be a robot, because it can not only go to homes; it can also enter the car trunk."

How does the trade crisis between the US and China affect you? Are you worried that the company and its sales will be affected?

"We're an international company, and we got along with every political regime, so we're adaptable. But there are short term things that must be addressed. I'll put it like this: In comparison with other industries, we're more sensitive to uncertainty. In developing the product, the cycle is different for hardware and software, and although these things are slowly converging, with us, things are still done on a relatively long-term basis. The two sides here think that clarity and certainty are goals for which we should strive. There are negotiations, they listen to us, and I'm not the only one talking like this - there are such voices on both sides."

Ford was asked at the journalists' meeting about being quoted after the Mobileye acquisition as saying that the Israeli company was a "frenemy" - half friend and half enemy. "Did I say that? I'm visiting them tomorrow. I was on the board of directors of eBay 15 years ago, where I got to know and understand Silicon Valley. I also had a venture capital fund. It was clear then who the customers were, who the suppliers were, and who the competitors were, and sometimes there were also cooperative ventures. When I joined eBay's board of directors, I didn't believe that Ford would be in a world in which there was something called a 'frenemy.' It's strange for me. It's a new phenomenon that's unknown in other industries."

Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on June 13, 2019

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2019

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Bill Ford Photo: Eitan Nadav
Bill Ford Photo: Eitan Nadav
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