Driving Ambitions: Future of the Car Is Focus of Family Weekend Symposium

Listen to the UVA Today Radio Show report on this story by Marian Anderfuren:

October 27, 2010 — Cars drive our lives as much as we drive them. A symposium at the University of Virginia, "The Car of the Future / The Future of the Car," will examine that evolving relationship during U.Va.'s Family Weekend, Nov. 5 and 6.

Representatives from such diverse U.Va. disciplines as engineering, architecture, business and nursing, along with the Center for German Studies, will discuss the place of the car in our changing world. Visiting speakers include:

Futurist Jeremy Rifkin
Burkhard Huhnke of Volkswagen's electronics research lab
Christopher Borroni-Bird, director of advanced technology vehicle concepts at GM
Daniel Sperling and Deborah Gordon, co-authors of "Two Billion Cars: Driving Toward Sustainablity."

Most of the sessions are free and open to the public.

On-site exhibits of hybrid and electric vehicles, including the Volkswagen Taureg, Chevy Volt and a Sanyo electric bicycle, will give a hands-on view of new technologies.

In addition, U.Va. students will show off their visions of the car and its future, with the best projects taking home cash prizes to be awarded during the symposium.

The interdisciplinary flavor of the event is important, said co-organizer Manuela Achilles, a professor in the Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures in the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences. "If you want to approach the subject properly, you need expertise that comes from many different disciplines."

One of the world's leading thinkers on how science and technology are impacting and remaking our economy, workforce, society and environment, Rifkin will speak Saturday morning.

He is a best-selling author of 17 books, including "The Hydrogen Economy," The Empathic Civilization" and "The European Dream: How Europe's Vision of the Future is Quietly Eclipsing the American Dream" (winner of the Corine International Book Prize for the best economic book of 2005).

He is a senior advisor to the European Union and several European heads of state and the principle architect of the EU's "Third Industrial Revolution." a long-term economic sustainability plan to address the triple challenge of the global economic crisis, energy security and climate change. 

Rifkin will explain how a shift to next-generation electric or hydrogen cars is the fifth of five key pillars needed to support a post-carbon Third Industrial Revolution, a not-so-distant era in which millions of buildings and vehicles will each produce distributed renewable energy, store it in hydrogen or batteries, and share it across an intelligent grid much like we now share digital media across the Internet.

In the nearer future, as new technology and business models emerge drivers are faced with countless options in regard to the automobile. For instance, ride-sharing and short-term car rentals are gaining popularity in America and around the world.

"This changes the whole concept of a car in the city," said symposium participant and architecture professor Tim Beatley, who has done extensive research on the impact of cars on city planning. Rather than having a personal car, he said, perhaps it makes more sense to have communal cars to be used only when needed, or to use stackable cars – available now – that fit together like shopping carts and thus require less parking space, a key commodity in cities the world over.

Such issues are addressed in the 2005 film "The Nature of Cities," co-produced by Beatley. Colorado-based filmmaker Chick Davis and Wulf Daseking, the director of city planning in Freiburg, Germany. The 45-minute film will be shown Nov. 6 at 7:30 p.m. in Clark Hall, room 108, followed by remarks from Daseking.

Our current dependence on cars has troubling health consequences, said Audrey Snyder, an assistant professor in the School of Nursing. Car crashes, she said, are almost always the result of some operator error. How then, can we design cars as to limit these potential errors?

"By research and over time we learn what makes someone safer," she said, citing side airbags and required lap and shoulder safety belts as necessary innovations. The advent of back-up cameras, she said, is likely to prevent injuries and crashes.

Of course, it is not just crashes that are a health risk. In this increasingly environmentally conscious age, people are more and more aware of the danger of car emissions. Snyder said that many people who visit France complain about, or even get sick from, the fumes of the diesel-powered cars that are popular there. The pros and cons of different types of fuel should be also be evaluated to ensure cars cause as few health risks as possible, she said.

Hydrogen, solar and electric energy as potential fuel sources for future automobiles will be discussed Friday at 12:15 p.m. in the auditorium of the Mary and David A. Harrison III Institute for American History, Literature and Culture. Speakers will be Bob Davis, professor of chemical engineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Science; Brent Gunnoe, chemistry professor in the College and director of U.Va.'s Center for Catalytic Hydrocarbon Functionalization; and Michelle Buchanan, an associate laboratory director at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Following Rifkin's talk on Saturday morning at 11:15 in Clark Hall 108, three U.Va. faculty members – Darden School of Business professor Mike Lenox, director of U.Va.'s Batten Institute; Kim Tanzer, dean of the School of Architecture; and Snyder – will discuss Rifkin's vision from the perspectives of business, architecture and health.

To foster student interest, the symposium is sponsoring a contest in which undergraduate students are invited to work individually or in groups to "explore the conceptions of a more sustainable society by focusing on the car and its future," Achilles said. Submissions can take any form, from a poster to a design model to an essay or music project, she said. The winner will receive a cash award of $2,500, first runner-up $1,000 and second runner-up $500.

More information, including a complete conference schedule, is available at the Center for German Studies website.

The symposium is supported by the Center for German Studies, Center for Global Initiatives in the Darden School, School of Architecture, School of Engineering and Applied Science, School of Nursing, Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, the College of Arts & Sciences, the Page-Barbour Fund and the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany.

– By Samantha Koon