While conventional vehicles with IC engines will continue to be in demand, the future of mobility would see multiple interpretation of cars, including electric powertrains, hybrids of various kinds and autonomous vehicles. Diversified German automotive supplier ZF is preparing ground to serve such changes with solutions and products of its own. Auto Tech Review spoke to Dr Stefan Sommer, Chief Executive Officer, ZF Friedrichshafen AG for this exclusive interview.
Chief Executive Officer of ZF Friedrichshafen AG, Dr Stefan Sommer is responsible for corporate R&D, corporate development, corporate communications and ZF aftermarket. Born on January 7, 1963 in Münster, Nordrhein-Westfalen, Germany, Dr Sommer earned his mechanical engineering graduate degree with specialization in automation technology from the Ruhr-Universität, Bochum and went on to complete his PhD studies at the Chair of Control Engineering and Embedded Systems, Ruhr-Universität, Bochum.
In 1994, he joined ITT Automotive Europe GmbH as a development engineer. In 1997, he moved to Continental Automotive Systems, Hannover as Director Electronics & Sensor Development. In 2008, he joined ZF Sachs AG in Schweinfurt as a Member of the Board of Management, Suspension Division. On January 1, 2012, he took charge as the Deputy Executive Vice President, ZF Group and since May 1 the same year, he is the CEO of ZF Friedrichshafen AG.
ATR _ How do you view the current megatrends in the automotive industry?
DR STEFAN SOMMER_ In the beginning on 2012, we identified the megatrends of safety, fuel efficiency, autonomous driving and related systems, and put them all at the centre of our product portfolio. Then we set up a strategy for 2025 anticipating how those global megatrends would influence society and our product portfolio in mobility. We see a strong change in the global automotive world, primarily driven by demands of improved fuel efficiency, and reduction of emission and global warming. That is driving the move from conventional technologies to electrified or CO2-neutral technologies.
The shift from conventional cars to full battery electric cars won't happen in a single step because infrastructure is not ready yet. We see a step-by-step transformation. As a transmission specialist, we see a lot of opportunities, whether it is in the area of electrified transmissions, 48 V mild hybrids, or plug-in hybrids. We also invest in battery electric drivetrains. By combining the driveline and chassis technologies, we think we are in a unique position in the world to deliver intelligent rolling chassis electrified axles, either in the rear or the front, with all components optimised for performance.
A lot of new players are coming into the auto market from the digital world, bringing artificial intelligence and sophisticated technologies in terms of drive assist systems, etc.
We are in a unique position because we try to grow all three pillars of our business – passenger cars, commercial vehicles and off-highway and industrial technologies.
Explain to us ZF's See-Think-Act philosophy, especially for markets like India or India-like markets.
First of all, we've seen this in every region in a different way. Europe has very complex technologies, while in China, it is driven by governmental regulations. We have now seen that India is also setting up an aggressive roadmap for new regulations towards road safety, fuel economy and emissions. Going from Euro IV to Euro VI bypassing Euro V is a very progressive, but challenging move. We need to derive cost-efficient technologies that serves the need of the Indian market to achieve the stringent targets.
As a transmission supplier, we see that automated transmissions – both in passenger cars as well as trucks – could be a big contributor. This technology could contribute about 15-20 % improved fuel efficiency and could also be cost-efficient.
How significant is your investment in the Hyderabad technical centre, and what role would this centre play in developing solutions for ZF globally?
Our background is mechanical, and the overall strategy is to stay a mechanical company and not move to being a service or pure digital company. However, we would like to understand the future digital world to enrich our mechanical products by the right intelligence and right electric performance, because even in the autonomous driving world we still need to 'act', such as to steer a car, brake a car, and accelerate a car. And we can't do this with software alone.
But we've seen the 'think' in the mirror, which is artificial intelligence. It's a lot of software that we need to control the complex work, and we are witnessing an exponential demand for that. We see India as an excellent country from the university perspective producing quality human resources and also from the service provider's perspective. So we wanted to create our own tech centre here in partnering with the service companies to ramp up the core thing, which is software. That is the main motivation. This centre will of course serve and support our entire global operations.
Additionally, we would also like to have more mechanical engineering expertise, where we could improve cost as well as specific performance levels for markets like India. The India technical centre would also support our worldwide tech centres in North America, China, Japan and Europe. It will be a centre of excellence for software and support for mechanical engineering as well.
For a diversified group like ZF, thinking about future mobility, are there areas that you'd like to focus more on compared to what you do currently?
Some areas offer a new definition of mobility, such as a robot car or a people mover, which could be between a bus and a car, and one that is automated and will ply in geo-fenced, restricted areas. There will also be a lot of mobility needs in serving the last mile. In Europe, we see a trend to protect the inner city circle from individual mobility. So, to serve the last mile, you'll either have two-wheelers or cars that are smaller than our regular cars. For delivery of goods, we could have electrified delivery trucks replacing the IC engine-driven trucks of today. We could also see small robots delivering individual parcels to specific address.
There will be big changes mainly in the urban areas, completely different from what we have today. And we are thinking of serving such demands with products of our own.
Talk to us about the "Oasis" self-driving concept car? Is the "Intelligent Rolling Chassis" (IRC) ready for adoption?
The IRC is an existing technology. We are ready to serve the market and deploy it in any kind of a car. Developed with Rinspeed, the general idea of the Oasis car was to create an EV, wherein the architecture changes completely because you don't have an engine, or a transmission in the front. You can use the space in a different way. This is a modular concept, a fun two-seater car providing a private environment but you can also take the IRC and put a people mover on it that can carry 6-8 people. It is very flexible. The architecture of the Oasis car allows it to serve individual needs of customers, whether it's a people mover, fun two-seater or for delivery of goods, etc. You can use the space with easy turn steering, where you have more agility in the car – for example in parking situations.
How do you look at the future, considering IC engines continue to improve in terms of efficiency and performance?
We need to look at this from a regional, and not a global perspective. In China, for example, it is very much driven by economical interest whereas in Europe, it is more to do with achieving the environmental targets. Europe is complex because you even have some individual cities making their own regulations. At the end, electrification is very much driven by two main topics – regulations, to push the people away from combustion engines, and secondly, installation of infrastructure. Infrastructure is the enabler, and Europe is investing heavily towards electromobility. Today, we have niche products like the Teslas. It's more of a lifestyle product currently but it needs to become a tool that provides mobility to the masses. We should be able to drive the cost down, build infrastructure and finally have regulations to push people towards this new technology.
We expect that from 2025 in Europe, we will have the first volume applications and thereon, EVs will gain market share year-by-year. Until that time, of course, combustion engines will continue to dominate the market and we'll also have plug-in hybrids as a bridging solution serving all kinds of mobility.
You spoke about ZF's overall strategy to stay a mechanical company. How significant a role would electronics play in shaping the future?
Electronics define new functionalities. With the maturity of electronics – with artificial intelligence, for instance – we step into new dimensions of functionalities like supporting the driver or driving autonomously. Electronics is an enabling technology, but at the end it isn't moving anything. You still need steering, braking and mechanical components. And you need it up to a different quality because the braking system for an autonomous car is different as it requires certain kind of redundancy. We invest in electronics to understand the mobility needs of the future and to come up with the right intelligent braking, steering or driveline systems. We need to understand this new world being provided by electronics and by artificial intelligence to come up with the right chassis and mechanical systems in the future.
Materials would also play a critical role in making mechanical systems perform better and drive efficiency. What's the kind of research ZF engages in on materials?
When we talk of efficiency, it's not just about fuel efficiency, transmissions or electric vehicles. It is also about lightweight technologies. We have a plastic fibre competence centre that we founded almost three or four years ago. We are working on new applications with plastic fibres and other lightweight technologies that helps save weight in a car. What we don't do is invest in battery technology because it demands huge investments and also it's very much linked to the design of the car – weight distribution, crash safety, packaging, etc. We do focus on the intelligence on controlling it and producing the electric drivetrain. If you look at the product, the electric powertrain is also a mechanical product.
And everything you do currently is to meet the Vision Zero target.
Absolutely – zero accidents and zero emissions is our vision. We also invest in different connected technologies, not just vehicle to vehicle (V2V) but vehicle to infrastructure (V2I) as well. This is a big contribution to road safety as a lot of accidents on our roads today happen because people keep looking at their mobile phones while driving, or even while crossing roads.
What are the future disruptions that are likely to impact the auto industry?
In the future, we will continue to have the conventional cars we know, but there will be more interpretation of cars. We will have more flexibility and variants. There will be autonomous vehicles, electric vehicles, and we'll have multiple new mobility possibilities for urban areas as well as long distance travel. That's the kind of disruptions we'll see.
TEXT: Deepangshu Dev Sarmah