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The 5 Coolest Technologies We Saw at Ford’s Silicon Valley Center

The future, according to Ford.

With the impending rise of autonomous vehicles and the continued march of vehicle connectivity and infotainment integration, many car manufacturers have opened up technology and innovation centers in the heart of California's Silicon Valley. Ford opened the doors to what it calls its "innovation center" in Silicon Valley in January of this year, and is hard at work on developing the next-generation of automotive technology. To show what technologies we might see in future cars, Ford invited us to take a look behind the curtain at some of the coolest tech and concepts they had stewing in its high-tech pot.

A Focus on Cameras

Ford has a thing for cameras. Specifically, a thing for slapping as many cameras as possible in upcoming models. In the case of the next-gen Ford F-250 and F-350 trucks, that means "up to" seven cameras per truck. The cameras, the number of which will be dependent on trim and model, will allow the driver to see many different angles around the perimeter of the truck, helping owners slip the massive trucks into tight spaces much more easily than before. Beyond the next-gen HD trucks, Ford plans to introduce standard backup cameras on all its models in 2018, and standard front-facing cameras in 2020. Ford says the biggest challenge facing the future of cameras is dealing with weather and dirt. The company have dabbled with hydrophobic coatings, but build-up issues still remain. For now, Ford's solution is a cool robotic pop-up washer to deal with grime, available on the F-150.

Alternative Materials

Ford has made significant investments in the pursuit of alternative materials, with heavy emphasis on recycled and reclaimed goods. It all started with soybeans, with Ford's use of soybean-based seat foam in the 2008 Ford Mustang. From there, the team has developed various plastics that incorporate strange materials. Ford has utilized repurposed wheat straw, the byproduct of harvesting wheat grain, to create a wheat-straw plastic used in the Ford Flex storage bins, beginning back in 2010. From there, things get a little more adventurous, with plastics made from hemp, coconut hairs, leftover bills shredded by the U.S. Treasury, and even disused tomato rind byproduct from Heinz's ketchup plants.

Ford Lightweight Fusion Concept

We were able to get up close and personal with Ford's Lightweight concept, a Ford Fusion chock-full of every bit of weight-saving technology Ford can muster. (Click here for a full break-down of what went into creating the featherweight sedan.) While the concept has been around for a few years, we are just now beginning to see the fruits of its development. The carbon-fiber wheels are a familiar sight, with the 2016 Shelby Mustang GT350R featuring the production version. Aluminum transmission components and the Gorilla Glass laminated windows are looking likely for production, as well.

Ford F-150 Pro Trailer Backup Assist

For a hands-on demonstration of Ford's cameras technologies, we tried out Ford's new Pro Trailer Backup Assist technology that is vailable on the 2016 Ford F-150. Using a series of rear-facing cameras and special stickers applied to a trailer, the truck owner can create a trailer profile with measurements so Pro Trailer Backup Assist "knows" where the trailer is in relation to the truck. By using a special knob located on the center of the dashboard, the driver controls the direction in which he or she wants the trailer to move while backup up. While in operation, the system will not allow the truck to exceed a set speed, and it automatically steers the wheels depending on the direction the operator has chosen. Leave the knob at top-dead-center, for instance, and the truck will autonomously keep the trailer centered behind your truck as you reverse.

Ford Virtual Reality Immersion Lab

In a dedicated room in the heart of the Innovation Center, Ford designed one of the coolest bits of virtual reality technology we have come across. A ceiling-mounted rack of cameras (see a theme going on here?) tracks the movement of the individual in question. A headset allows the user to experience a Ford vehicle in high-definition 3D, with the ability to create cross sections, so that engineers and customers can see and dissect the car in virtual space. In the same room as the 3D lab, an impressive driving simulator was set up to demonstrate the way driver assists could be used in a horse-and-rider partnership. Ford is investigating the way autonomous features interact with drivers. One way is to approach the subject from the perspective of how a horse automatically guides the rider on a trail. With autonomous cars, the on-board systems could intervene to gently guide the driver back on the correct path if they accidentally exit a lane or do not apply the brakes fast enough. In the driving simulator lab, the rig is remotely hooked up to another steering wheel located behind curtains. The driver is put into a highway scenario, where he or she is asked to deviate from the lanes. The person behind the curtains will move their own wheel, which in turn is hooked up to the main rig, turning the wheel for the driver, simulating autonomous driving assists.