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.