PALO ALTO, CA – The high-tech culture of Silicon Valley is shaking up the automobile industry and from his perch at Stanford University here, Sven Beiker has a great vantage point from which to observe the upheaval as it unfolds in real time.
Beiker, a former BMW engineer and manager who spent two years in Detroit working on hybrid powertrains for the German automaker, is director of the Center for Automotive Research at Stanford (CARS). The center has picked up widespread support from the private sector as it keeps its eye on the pulse of Silicon Valley's growing interest in the automotive industry and the automotive industry's growing interest in Silicon Valley.
Virtually every major automaker with global operations and several major suppliers have set up shop in Silicon Valley, Beiker notes. Continental, for example, hired away an executive from Google to run a new office near San Francisco.
New Ford CEO Mark Fields notes he spent several days in Silicon Valley before officially assuming his new role on July 1 to get a better understanding of the technological forces that are reshaping the car business.
Beiker was one of the first industry observers in Silicon Valley, having been dispatched in the late 1990s from Munich by BMW to keep an eye on evolving technology in California for the German automaker. At the time, BMW was keenly interested in developments in consumer electronics.
One of the things he managed to do was convince BMW senior management that mini-compact discs were not the wave of the future, he recounts. Digital delivery, on the other hand, was growing rapidly. From Silicon Valley, he moved to Detroit where he worked on BMW's share of a joint hybrid-vehicle-development project with General Motors and what then was DaimlerChrysler.
Beiker joined the Stanford faculty in 2008 and since then has been responsible for strategic planning, resources management and project incubation at the Center of Automotive Research.
During his tenure at Stanford, which has long been central to Silicon Valley's high-tech culture, he has launched research into “Legal Aspects of Autonomous Driving,” “Wireless Power Transfer to a Moving Vehicle” and “Vehicle Communication via Cellular Networks.” Beiker also worked on the university’s collaboration with Volkswagen on the automaker’s Automotive Innovation Lab.
Unlike other university-based automotive think tanks, such as the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, CARS hasn’t competed actively for federal grant money, Beiker says in a recent interview.
Instead it relies on a growing roster of more than two dozen sustaining supporters from the private sector, including major industry players such as Ford, Honda, Hyundai, Chrysler, Toyota, Mercedes-Benz, Robert Bosch and Delphi, as well as companies such as Panasonic and Texas Instruments.
Beiker says CARS’ corporate sponsors don’t pay for specific projects but rather help fund the center’s overall research.
In addition, individual automakers’ work on a variety of high-tech projects. Toyota, for example, unveiled a 3-D head-up display developed at its technical center in Silicon Valley earlier this month.
More Than Decade of Stanford Research
Supporters of the Stanford center have access to research conducted by the university in three key areas: Dynamic Design, Interactive Media and the Stanford AI Lab, the intellectual home for Stanford Computer Science Dept. researchers whose primary focus is artificial intelligence, and its automated driving group.
Beiker notes Stanford researchers have been working on the combination of motoring and artificial intelligence for more than a decade, going back to the DARPA Challenge for automated driving sponsored by the U.S. Department of Defense. The VW-Stanford researchers were an integral part of the team that won the first DARPA challenge race in 2005.
Automated driving, a term Beiker prefers to autonomous vehicles, remains one of the key areas being explored by CARS, he says. But automated driving also requires an understanding of the human-machine interactions and the legal environment in which cars can operate by themselves.
Automatic driving within the controlled environment of a factory floor is quite different than in actual traffic, Beiker notes in his small office tucked into an office building in the center of the Stanford campus.
“We have access to expertise in both of these fields,” says Beiker, who acknowledges Stanford's influence in the automotive world has grown along with interest in automated vehicles and autonomous driving. “There is little doubt that Google has a large impact on the automobile industry,” he says of the Silicon Valley tech giant and its Self-Driving Car.
Self-driving vehicles aren’t the only area of interest to the auto industry at Stanford. In addition, projects in electric-vehicle charging and research on advanced batteries are being conducted by the university’s Institute for Materials Science, which recently published a paper indicating advances in nanotechnology are pointing to lighter, cheaper and more durable batteries.
Other aspects of Stanford CARS, which describes itself as “an interdisciplinary partnership between academia and industry to address the challenges of personal mobility in the 21st century,” involve discussions of future business models.
Beiker is in regular contact with Silicon Valley's venture-capitalist companies concentrated along Sand Hill Road near the Stanford campus.
“They're not interested in financing a new car company. But they are talking about mobility services,” he says, noting the Uber ride-sharing service has had a huge influence on the thinking of the area’s wealthy VC community.
Silicon Valley is very interested in what goes on in Detroit and Stuttgart, but will it become the next automotive center? “I don't think that's going to happen. I don't even think they want to,” Beiker says.