PALO ALTO, CA – Long-settled assumptions about the automobile businesses are under stress and automakers are courting new partners to better understand the shifting landscape where the pace of change is accelerating.

In a bid to keep its business footing solid, Ford is expanding its technical center here in the heart of Silicon Valley, an epicenter of the social and economic change fostering new businesses and new business models.

For Ford CEO Mark Fields, who is no stranger to Silicon Valley’s unique culture, growing the Dearborn, MI-based automaker’s outpost near San Francisco is a necessity not a luxury.

On the one hand, Fields says, Ford intends to continue focusing on “great” products for a wide audience. But on the other, it also wants to capitalize on the technical knowhow, pace of change and opportunities of the West Coast.

“I think it's very important for us,” Fields says of the Silicon Valley office.

“We’re never going to take our eye off being a great developer of cars, utilities and trucks. But there could be opportunities for us, so it’s very important to open up that lens,” he tells journalists following a recent speech in San Francisco.

Ford has had a modest presence in Silicon Valley since 2012. The Ford Research & Innovation Center opened in January 2015 in a repurposed building in the Stanford University Research Park. It has 40 employees but the number is expected to grow to roughly 65 by mid-summer and then double by the end of 2015, making it one of the largest automotive-oriented research centers in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Only the Mercedes-Benz Research & Development Center in Sunnyvale is larger.

Ford’s Palo Alto research center concentrates on innovation in connectivity, mobility, autonomous vehicles, customer experience and big data, says Kenneth Washington, vice president-Advanced Engineering and R&D at Ford.

The research center also underscores the dramatic way computer-driven technology is reshaping the auto industry.

“Information technology used to help us do the heavy lifting in the back office,” says Don Butler, executive director-Connected Vehicles and Services at Ford. “Now it’s become our business.”