The vibe of Ford’s small outpost in the heart of Palo Alto is straight-up Silicon Valley start-up: empty cubes, diagrams scribbled on wall-sized whiteboards, and a lounge with multiple game stations. (I didn’t see a foosball table.) T.J. Giuli, the guy in charge, sports a ponytail and goatee - and holds a Ph.D. in computer science from nearby Stanford. His first hire, Dave Evans, also a Stanford-trained research engineer, is attired in T-shirt, shorts, flip-flops and shades flipped back on his head. They both espouse an unabashed open-source credo.

None of this is surprising until you reflect that Giuli and Evans are not toiling on the next great social media site - but the next iteration of products made of glass and steel by an old-school manufacturing company founded 110 years ago.

Giuli, research lab leader at Ford’s Silicon Valley Lab, wants Ford cars to become open-source crowd-enabled modular products. “We don’t judge our success on the ideas we come up with,” said Giuli. “But the ideas from people outside of Ford. If somebody comes up with an idea I never would have thought of, then it’s a success.”

In fact, the core mission of Ford’s Palo Alto research lab is to enable innovators - even those with limited resources and technical chops - to see the automobile as a platform for creativity. Giuli points to a disembodied car dashboard and steering wheel, out of place in this office setting.

“Let’s say you don’t like these steering wheel buttons. Maybe you could slap in a capacitive touch controller,” he said. “Using this platform, people would, by themselves, be able to design things.” The lab also maintains two vehicles in its parking lot for testing.

In the next few months, Ford expects to release the beta version of its car app developer kit. There are already more than 1,000 developers waiting to be notified when it’s ready. At that point, this lab’s work will shift to supporting and growing a community of car hackers. “We’re interested in spurring the creation of an ecosystem,” Giuli said.

Trading Grease For Code

Ford’s OpenXC API runs on a combination of Arduino and Android platforms - technology chosen to make modding your car as easy as programming a smartphone. The system can potentially access the 1,000 or more data points, generated by sensors on Ford vehicles and served up via the 16-pin onboard diagnostics port (a standard feature of all cars since 1996). The Ford toolkit encourages development of software as well as add-on hardware.

Evans, a mechanical engineer with expertise in rapid prototyping and digital manufacturing technology, comes naturally to the automotive industry. His father is Andy Evans, a profession race car driver, who drove for Ferrari in the 1990s in the World Sports Car series. “I have cars in my blood,” said Evans.

“When you think back to the days of the 1960s Mustangs, you’d pop open the hood. If you knew what you’re doing, you could change all kinds of mechanical things,” said Evans. “But now, if you open up the hood of your car, what do you see? Plastic. It’s intimidating.” The answer: Ford wants to transform 20th century grease monkeys into 21st century DIY car geeks.

Ford first announced its OpenXC platform a year ago at the TechCrunch Disrupt 2011 Hackathon. Since then, the Ford Silicon Valley Lab has vetted its process, sometimes working with partners, by evaluating a number of hacks:

  • Using the rate and duration of windshield wiper activity, cars become roaming weather stations capable of reporting rain and other conditions on a microclimate level.
  • Got an overbearing mother who insists on knowing when you arrive at a destination? With a hack, the car texts, “Oy vay, I’m here already.”
  • Looking at steering wheel angle, accelerator pedal position, speeds, RPM, and GPS location, an app determines that you just completed a fun drive on a twisty road. It does a GPS trace and tweets the deets, including a link to a Google map.
  • An obvious application is traffic detection, which is not such a big deal in U.S. where traffic reports are everyday radio fare, but could be huge in the developing world. If multiple drivers repeatedly slam their brakes on the same stretch of road, traffic planners could learn there’s a safety problem in the road design.

From there, who knows what innovation could emerge from an online community of car hackers? Ford’s lab is not currently constrained by a need to commercialize any of the ideas but sees its work instead as research regarding the feasibility of a car-based open source strategy. Giuli will grow the lab’s staff from three employees currently, to about 10 to 15 people in the next three years.

Ford might seem forward thinking in establishing such a lab, but Giuli doesn’t see it that way. He believes it’s more a matter of keeping up with where innovative geeks are already going. “Tons of people are already making car apps that work with OBD2 readers, or replacing the center stack with their own car computer.

That’s happening today, and there’s nothing that anybody can do to stop it,” he said. “So, it’s a good idea for OEMs like Ford to make this really easy. Hopefully, we can benefit customers with a lot of awesome new features.”