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High-tech cars bring Detroit, Silicon Valley face to face

PALO ALTO, Calif.

The office has all the trappings of a high-tech startup. There is a giant beanbag in the foyer and erasable, white board walls for brainstorming. Someone's dog lounges happily on the sunny balcony.

Welcome to the Palo Alto home of the Ford Motor Co., 6 miles from the headquarters of Google.

Meanwhile, in a squat, industrial building in suburban Detroit, a short drive from Ford's headquarters, workers are busy building a small fleet of driverless cars.

The company behind them? Google.

The convergence of cars and computers is blurring the traditional geographical boundaries of both industries. Silicon Valley is dotted with research labs opened by automakers and suppliers racing to develop high-tech infotainment systems and autonomous cars. Tech companies — looking to grow and sensing an industry that's ripe for disruption — are heading to Detroit to better understand the auto industry and get their software embedded into cars.

The result is both heated competition and unprecedented cooperation between two industries that rarely spoke to each other five years ago.

There's also plenty of employee poaching. Apple recently hired Fiat Chrysler's former quality chief. Ride-sharing service Uber snagged 40 researchers and scientists from Carnegie Mellon's Pittsburgh robotics lab. Tesla's head of vehicle development used to work at Apple.

For years, the fast-paced tech industry showed little respect for the plodding car industry. Google and Palo Alto-based Tesla, with its high-tech electric sedans, helped change that.

Dragos Maciuca, a former Apple engineer who's now the technical director of Ford's Palo Alto research lab, says he's seeing a new excitement about the auto industry in Silicon Valley. For one thing, cars provide a palpable sense of accomplishment for software engineers.

"If you work at Google or Yahoo, it's hard to point out, 'Well, I wrote that piece of code.' It's really hard to be excited about it or show your kids," Maciuca says. "In the auto industry, you can go, 'See that button? The stuff that's behind it, I worked on that.' "

For their part, automakers are learning that rolling out cars that remain static for years until the next model comes out is no longer practical. At the insistence of tech companies, they're learning to make cars with navigation, infotainment and other features that can be constantly updated.

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