Ford taps BlackBerry talent to double its in-house mobile engineering team

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Ford has made 400 new engineering hires, the company announced, and will create a new Research and Engineering Centre in Ottawa (yes, it’s a ‘centre’ because it’s Canadian). The majority of the hires come from BlackBerry, where they have extensive experience working with QNX, the operating systems that powers Ford’s SYNC 3, and is used by a large number of the world’s leading automakers in similar capacities.

The new hires more than double Ford’s existing team of engineers focused on mobility and connectivity, and essentially mean that Ford now has a larger group dedicated to this area than do many smartphone makers, as pointed out to me by Ford’s Global Director for Electrical and Electronic Systems Engineering Chuck Gray.

So what does a focus on mobility and connectivity entail for this new cadre of Ford engineers, exactly? Well, autonomous vehicles are one aspect, but the more immediate concerns for the group will be working on specific elements of in-car connectivity, device-to-device communication and network technology that will eventually prove very useful in fielding the first generation of consumer self-driving cars.

“In order to have autonomy, the vehicle’s got to be connected, it’s just fundamental,” Gray explained. “The vehicle itself, whether there’s a driver or not, has to be communicating with the cloud for various reasons, so this group immediately is working on creating that connectivity spine or network upon which everything else can be built.”

“The majority [of hires from this announcement] are from BlackBerry,” he said, regarding the decision to place their new facility in Ottawa and the talent they’re drawing for the majority of this group of new employees. “Obviously they have deep skills, in embedded software, in mobile devices, in connectivity, and when you look at the subsets of products they work in – they work in RF, they work hardware, they work at the chip level, they work in operating systems, they have a renowned reputation for security and stability […] so it was a really good fit.”

Projects the group will focus on include in-car connectivity, as mentioned, as well as advanced driver assist features. The work of the group will also take place in additional engineering centers in Waterloo and Oakville in Canada, as well as North Carolina and Florida in the U.S. It’s also reasonable to expect the company’s investment in this area to grow over time, as it takes on an increasingly important role to automakers in general.

Gray says that the company set its sights on “really having full control over the software that shapes” much of a driver’s experience in the car, and sought out a talent pool that could support these ambitions, which led it to Canada’s automotive systems engineering hub in Ottawa, where BlackBerry’s QNX is based. Gray added that a focus on its own mobility engineering would help undergird revenue potential resulting from connected vehicles, as well as provide added potential for customers over the lifetime of their cars via convenience features like over-the-air software updates.

Data is the key for carmakers in the modern market, and making sure you have an internal organization that can effectively own in-car software and connectivity services will be key to keeping ahead in that race, especially as the industry moves towards autonomous cars and more free time for in-car activity.