PALO ALTO, Calif. -- Stroll through Stanford University's 8,000-square-foot Automotive Innovation Facility here and you quickly discover that it's more than a learning center for budding engineers.
For instance, you're as likely to hear a serious discussion about the role of cars in American literature or the vintage automobiles used in filming The Great Gatsby as you are about electromechanical systems and battery thermodynamics.
Drawing on Stanford's resources, the facility has become an academic hothouse for all things automotive. It's a think-big tank that looks at everything from how body panels corrode to the history of iconic cars -- not just to solve today's problems but to understand the future of personal transportation and to plan for it.
And the automotive curriculum has proved popular in this left coast breeding ground for Silicon Valley computer titans, having grown to 357 students this year from 106 during the 2011 and 2012 school years.
It also has grabbed the attention of several automakers eager to tap into Stanford brainpower. Renault-Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn and former BMW design chief Chris Bangle recently showed up to make short speeches and then casually share hot dogs and beer with Stanford students and talk about their research projects.
Mechanical engineering is central to the curriculum but at Stanford they ponder the auto -- and its role in our future -- from a variety of perspectives.
"We want kids and faculty from all over the university," said Clifford Nass, director of Stanford's Revs Program, one of several automotive programs at the university. "It would be a failure if the only kids here were mechanical engineers. It would be a waste."
Stanford does not offer a degree in automotive studies, but the syllabus of car-related courses is denser than at many institutions that do.
The Automotive Innovation Facility -- largely funded by a $5.75 million gift from Volkswagen -- opened in 2010, but it houses several departments that have been around for a lot longer.
- The Center for Automotive Research at Stanford, or CARS, studies safety, performance and sustainability for the next generation of vehicles. It mostly works as an affiliate program to help automakers with specific projects.
- Revs is a engineering program that considers the automobile and its role in society, looking at its past and present and developing ideas for the future.
- The Communication between Humans and Interactive Media Lab works on automotive telematics.
In addition, groups of faculty and students fabricate solar-powered race cars and study drive-by-wire and driver assistance systems, and a Dynamic Design Lab that builds autonomous vehicles, including an Audi TTS that zoomed up Pikes Peak.