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Trends in automotive technology

First publishedin ITS International
January February 2012
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Elmar Degenhart

Continental has become a leading player in vehicle technology and telematics. The firm’s executive board chairman Elmar Degenhart describes to Jason Barnes Continental’s views on the ‘megatrends’ of the automotive industry

Strategic moves to diversify Continental’s business from rubber-related products began in the late 1990s with the acquisition of ITT Teves and its brake business. This brought on board know-how relating to the then new electronic stability control (ESC) systems which today form an important part of output from Continental’s Chassis & Safety division.

The main idea at that time was that tyres, brakes and chassis control are all parts of the same equation, but acquisition of ITT Teves was but a first step, as Conti looked to follow the trend in the automotive industry towards broader ‘system competence’.

After buying Teves in 1998, the next move was the 2000/2001 acquisition of Temic, with its sensors and interior business, from Daimler. Another major step was taken in 2006 when Continental purchased the automotive business of Motorola (gaining its telematics systems competence) but perhaps the most significant acquisition of the strategy was that of Siemens VDO in 2007. This completed Continental’s transformation into a comprehensive, integrated systems supplier with the skills necessary to address what it terms the ‘megatrends’ of the automotive industry: safety, information, environment and affordability.

Significant players

These four megatrends will play significant roles in future vehicle developments, says Chairman of Continental’s executive board Elmar Degenhart.

“The safety megatrend focuses on protecting human life in ever more congested and predominantly private road traffic. Continental is developing products and solutions geared to preventing traffic accidents and their fatal consequences entirely. Active safety systems are playing an increasing role,” Degenhart says.

“The environment megatrend is pushing forward the development of new drive systems as well as new and innovative technologies for enhancing efficiency. The large savings potential presented by diesel and new gasoline engines mean they will continue to be the dominant types of drive systems for the next 20 years but we’re convinced that electric drive technology will make a major contribution to reducing pollution emissions in future vehicle generations.

“Continental conducted a mobility survey in 2011 which showed that people around the world are open to electro-mobility. In fact, the majority of drivers could easily cover all their mobility needs with electric vehicles that are already on the market but the electric powertrain will not prevail until lithium-ion batteries fall substantially in cost. At present, an electric vehicle costs up to €10,000 more than a standard vehicle and that’s simply not acceptable to consumers.

“Insufficient networking of vehicles is also unacceptable. Growing demands of drivers in terms of operability, functionality and safety, and the trend towards e-mobility are upping the importance of the information megatrend – management of data in modern vehicles. The car is no longer an isolated shell, it’s an intricately networked system inside and out. In other words, what happens inside and outside the car is less a matter of isolated coincidences and misjudgments but increasingly the product of intelligent networking.

 “And ultimately, it is a matter of shaping individual mobility such that it is affordable for everyone in the world. ‘Affordable cars’ is a megatrend that is being driven by growing demands for individual mobility worldwide. There is a clear trend: the number of low-cost vehicles will rise, with their share of total production climbing to around 20%. These are not lower quality vehicles. They use the latest technologies but are minimalist and tailored to the specific needs of their intended customers and regions.”

Safety

A strong focus for Conti is active safety systems – those which work to prevent accidents from happening. Dynamic high performance brakes, ESC, emergency brake assist (EBA) and advanced driver assistance systems in general are key technologies when it comes to further upping road safety. The expectation is that technology should provide the driver with effective help in all dangerous situations. Degenhart is especially energised by Continental’s new stereo camera approach to monitoring vehicle surroundings.

“This makes it possible to hinder – or at least mitigate the consequences of – frequently occurring accidents involving pedestrians or intersecting vehicles,” he says. “The stereo camera has two ‘eyes’, so it can clearly recognise obstacles and measure how far off and how big they are. This opens the door to a new generation of predictive EBA systems.”

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Degenhart in Continental’s Gifhorn plant
Continental's Gifhorn plant produces externally excited synchronous electric motors for Renault's Fluence and Kangoo models, but such power will not gain predominance until lithium-ion batteries fall dramatically in cost, says Degenhart.

Environment and information

Historically, ‘clean power’ has tended to mean improvements to powertrains. However, convergence with telematics will lead to significantly more sophisticated solutions involving both powertrains and localised information services. That involves networking individual vehicle domains such as powertrain, chassis, safety systems and interior more closely, as well as opening up the vehicle.

 Degenhart says: “If a car knows all about local topography, current traffic conditions and weather data, it can gear itself to eco-friendly driving. Look at hybrid vehicles: typically, a hybrid would switch on the combustion engine when heading uphill and the battery charge drops below a certain level. If the car can reliably predict that it will head back downhill again within the range of the battery – allowing recharging – and if there is no indication of a traffic jam, then the vehicle can continue to use the battery to save on fossil fuels. The vehicle thus draws upon a multitude of current external data, using it to directly intervene in the vehicle electronics or to provide the driver with relevant information.

“On the other hand, the immense amount of data that vehicles produce in traffic can also be utilised with the help of networking. Traffic management systems could intervene in traffic flow much more quickly, not only via guidance systems but also by providing drivers with recommendations based on accumulated and evaluated data.”

Smartphones and other devices from the consumer electronics industry already provide ‘always on’ connectivity but in-vehicle use of all of a smartphone’s functions presents a safety issue. Conti sees its role as an automotive supplier, to develop concepts geared towards the needs of the motorist which are safe. At present, says Degenhart, that is pushing development in two directions.

 “For cost-conscious drivers, it is particularly attractive to use the processing performance and data contract of smartphones while in the vehicle. Based on the concept of high tech at low cost, we can integrate the phone’s functions into the vehicle with navigation, music and internet applications operated and displayed safely and conveniently via touchscreens, voice control systems or steering wheel controls; we make the smartphone an essential component of the vehicle’s ‘infotainment’ while ensuring that it helps the driver drive instead of distracting him.”

 Alternatively, there are wholly integrated solutions. eCall – the automatic transmission of an emergency call in the event of an accident – will become mandatory in new vehicles in the near future. “This requires a telematics unit, which we could then use to bring further internet services into the car. In order for both of these approaches to be successful, it’s vital that elements invisible to the end customers are standardised. The more headway we make in this regard, the more we can cut development costs and time factors together with telecommunications and software partners, bridging the gap to rapid development cycles of consumer electronics,” Degenhart says.

“One thing we have learned from our participation in German research projects, is that there is a great deal of potential for traffic safety and efficiency in communication between vehicles and between vehicles and infrastructure. We know that just a small percentage of vehicles communicating with each other is sufficient to achieve significant improvements for all road users. So that we do not have to wait for complex new infrastructures to be set up, as a first step we envision systems that enable vehicles to communicate with each other via the mobile network. Connecting the vehicle to the internet is essential and it is Continental’s task to work on hardware standards in order to share the benefits with as many drivers as possible.”

Affordability

The affordable car megatrend is interesting in that it would appear to be bringing a reversal of historical top-down introduction of new technologies – especially so with regard to networking of vehicles. Variance in purchasing power in different regions around the world makes affordable individual mobility a huge challenge. Continental is banking here on locally developed, cost-efficient and scalable products.

“Equipped with minimalistic functions, they are based on the latest technologies,” Degenhart says. “In the area of networking for example, we aim to integrate cell phones more tightly into vehicle systems so that the added expense for drivers is kept to a minimum. In general, our order books demonstrate the success of this strategy. From the point of view of development, in many cases it is not enough to achieve cost goals only by reduction of functionality in existing components. That’s why development must head in new directions, requiring openness and creativity on the part of developers. On the whole, the bottom-up approach is gaining in importance. Components and systems are being geared to the needs of affordable cars. Their functionality is upwardly scalable and thus adaptible to the requirements of compact and mid-size vehicles. This will lead increasingly to a democratisation of latest technologies for all vehicle classes. We feel that this aspect is particularly important, since it should be possible for all motorists worldwide to be mobile – safely, comfortably and economically. ‘Affordable’ should not mean compromises in terms of safety, quality, sustainability or convenience of use.”

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