DETROIT – Ford hopes its new Silicon Valley research lab will help it foster current relationships, and forge new ones, with some of the world’s leading technology companies, a top executive says.

Mark Fields, president-The Americas, says the auto maker first saw the benefits of establishing a presence in the high-tech community years ago, which led to CEO Alan Mulally presenting a keynote speech at the Consumer Electronics Show in 2008. He has spoken at the show every year since.

“We were going to CES when (no other auto maker) was going and we’ve shown our commitment year after year,” Fields tells WardsAuto at the recent Detroit auto show. “This (lab) is another piece of that commitment to show even more how we want to be part of that community.”

The lab, located in the southern part of the San Francisco Bay area in Northern California, is in close proximity to top tech companies including Google, Microsoft, Sony, Apple, Facebook, Intel and Cisco.

A long-term partnership with Microsoft led to development of Ford’s Sync infotainment system, Fields says.

The system, which allows hands-free use of cell phones and digital music players, has been installed in more than 4 million Ford vehicles, and the auto maker says it expects an additional 9 million vehicles will be equipped with Sync by 2015.

“We’ve developed a lot of partnerships, and (the lab) will allow us to push our thinking even more,” Fields says. “I think our competitive advantage is not just having people that will live (in the region) 24/7, but (also) the relationships we’ve built over the past four to five years.”

Ford Research and Innovation, the auto maker’s advanced-engineering division, is responsible for opening the new lab, which is set to begin operating by the end of the first-quarter.

Spokesman Alan Hall says the auto maker is hiring locals to staff the facility, but declines to reveal how many full-time personnel it will employ.

Eventually the lab will be used to connect Ford’s Advance Design Studio in Irvine, CA, and employees already stationed at Microsoft’s headquarters in Redmond, WA.

Ford’s Research and Innovation team already is working on a number of projects that will be supported by the Silicon Valley lab.

Among them is ongoing research into providing information collected by a vehicle’s onboard sensors to outside firms such as San Francisco-based Weather Underground, which is looking at ways to use data indicating windshield-wiper activations to improve its weather reporting.

The lab also will continue Ford’s efforts to identify future global consumer trends and how to address the growing number of drivers by developing new business models to help avoid gridlock.

Ford has not disclosed how much the new lab will cost, but Mulally said during the CES earlier this month that continuous investment in future technologies is critical to future success.

“Most successful businesses are looking out at least five to 10 years,” he says. “If you ever stop investing in the near-term and put the longer term at risk, you’re putting the whole company at risk.”

bpope@wardsauto.com