Car start-ups talk technology

July 22, 2010, 12:34 a.m.

Representatives from six local automotive companies and development teams came together at the Center for Automotive Research at Stanford (CARS) last Thursday to show off their prototype vehicles at the annual Vehicle Concept Showcase. In a question-and-answer session led by CARS director Sven Beiker, a lecturer in mechanical engineering, the teams discussed the innovative technology that makes their cars unique and said they hope to inspire major car manufacturers to take notice.

The center invited four teams in its extended network, as well as two of its own student-run projects, to speak in the hope of giving visibility to alternative vehicles that might otherwise go unnoticed. The five vehicles that made an appearance at the showcase demonstrated technology ranging from the standard combustion engine to fully electric and solar-powered systems.

Car start-ups talk technology
Apogee, the Stanford Solar Car, was on display at the annual Car Showcase on July 14. (BRIAN NGUYEN/The Stanford Daily)

Silicon Valley may not call to mind the same images of car manufacturing that Detroit does, but according to the teams that have made their home here, the valley has benefits that Motown does not offer. As the industry moves further away from gasoline-powered vehicles and toward electric cars, it is more useful for them to be closer to the manufacturers of the chips that gave the valley its name.

“The Silicon Valley has a lot to offer in terms of innovation and self-starters and just a can-do attitude,” said Christopher Heiser, the co-founder of a local automotive start-up. “But there’s a lot to learn, and this is really an opportunity for all of us to really work together and innovate.”

The move to Silicon Valley has also helped these businesses reach out to Stanford students and alumni. Stanford students contributed not only to the two all-student teams, but to other projects at the showcase, too. Dante Zeviar, the chief technology officer of KleenSpeed, whose racecar placed first this year at the Refuel race for electric vehicles, said that having students on the team is one of their priorities.

“[We] are about knowledge and learning, so in that spirit, I like to bring in interns and people from universities,” Zeviar said. “My objective in life is to bring in young people, the next generation. The world is full of young people, and I’m starting to get a little old. So the purpose is to bring in very smart individuals and get them involved.”

Although some of those who presented hope to commercialize their products within the next year, others, such as KleenSpeed and OptaMotive, hope to use the data they’ve collected and the new techniques they’ve produced as a springboard for the future. KleenSpeed even hopes to take what it has learned from race cars and apply it to a more familiar car, the Mazda Miata, so the company can further its knowledge of how electric vehicles might function in different scenarios.

One goal of the event is for such knowledge to filter back to Motor City, where the big car manufacturers would be able ensure much more widespread use.

“We want to reach out to the start-ups in the area to give them visibility they won’t get otherwise, but we also want to get the incumbents inspired,” Beiker said.

Correction: in an earlier version of this story, The Daily incorrectly spelled OptaMotive and referred to the Refuel race as Refresh.

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