How the world thinks about the automobile is changing. Our beloved hunks of steel built to convert old dinosaurs into rotational motion have evolved into sleek, energy-sipping machines—whether it be entirely (EVs) or partially (hybrids). Most importantly, the automobile is becoming more computerized than ever. Long forgotten is the shift from carburetors to electronic fuel injection, and much more relevant is the inception of software-heavy cars that rely on a variety of sensors, cameras, and other advanced systems to safely transport their occupants. As a result, software engineering will be crucial in the decades to come, and automakers know that early adoption will provide a huge advantage over their enemies. Ford knows this, and Bill Ford Jr., Ford’s executive chairman and great-grandson of Henry Ford, knows this.
As domestic automakers begin to adopt this new philosophy of tech-focused transportation, the type of talent they need to attract to stay competitive in the automotive battlefield is lacking in their home turf of Detroit. That’s why automakers like Ford are turning their attention towards software engineers to build the next generation of cars that focus heavily on content that only they can create.
Michigan Central Station
In 2018, Ford announced there would be some big changes coming to an old train station in Detroit. The Blue Oval committed to sending its best and brightest in all things technomobility to the Michigan Central Station in Corktown. Ford’s plans involved a $950 million investment—$740 million of which is committed to renovating the abandoned station—to create a 30-acre campus to serve as Michigan’s hub for mobility innovation.
The project is expected to be complete by summer 2023, but in the meantime, Ford is fighting hard to create more software engineers and emerging developers involved with coding cars. In a recent report by Automotive News, Ford Jr. explicitly said that Detroit “desperately” needs more software engineers to continue staying competitive in the rapidly changing auto industry. And that’s where Central Station comes into play.
Google announced last Friday that it has signed on as a founding member of the renewed Michigan Central Station, becoming one of the first tech companies to partner with Ford. It will bring with it its cloud infrastructure, which includes the capability of machine learning, plus data and analytic tools, as well as a wealth of knowledge for those looking to dip their toes into the trade.
Ford Jr. called the partnership “a game-changer” and called on public universities to put a greater emphasis on teaching software development.
“We need to lean into the software development as a state if we’re going to be the leader,” Ford told Crain’s Detroit Business.
Ford’s vision of a reworked Central Station
Meanwhile, Google said it will open a Code Next Lab at Michigan Central Schools, a program that will teach computer science to high schoolers in hopes that they may one day work in the newly cultivated innovation district. Additionally, the tech giant plans to also teach classes for high schoolers directly at Michigan Central Station after school and on weekends.
Per the report, the City of Detroit also signed an agreement with Ford to create a “transportation innovation zone” in the area surrounding Michigan Central. This area, according to Mayor Mike Duggan, will promote the testing of self-driving vehicles and other emerging mobility tech.
Ford is well known for using the talent and resources plucked from the Motor City in order to grow both the company and its community. Linda Zhang, for example, joined the company through Ford’s College Graduate program and is now the chief engineer behind the F-150 Lightning. Now, Ford is looking to do exactly the same thing with developers and software engineers spawned from Google’s training camps.
Automotive software developers are undoubtedly going to be in high demand in the coming years. The complexity required to code in the automotive space has increased by a factor of four over the past decade, and that likely isn’t going to let up any time soon. As cars become more connected and focus on the user experience, people will need to be there along the way to connect systems, design interfaces, and lead unique projects that set automakers apart from one another, for better or for worse.
Ford’s early investment and partnering with a tech giant like Google may very well earn it some early victories in future automotive wars, wars that won’t be fought with horsepower, displacement, or any other measurable mechanical characteristics from the past.
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