ZF CEO details strategy for mobility future

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Sommer: The future car, even if it is a robot or autonomous, still needs mechanics.

SUNNYVALE, Calif. — ZF is preparing for an autonomous future by doubling down on what it sees as its primary strengths: mechanical and safety systems.

The supplier recently opened an office in Silicon Valley, a key part of its strategy to ensure the company remains a major player when traditional cars give way to driverless vehicles, according to ZF CEO Stefan Sommer. Rather than develop new technology in-house, Sommer plans to adapt ZF’s current offerings for self-driving cars, and collaborate with Silicon Valley players to enhance its core products.

“We want to prepare the braking, steering and driveline system in a way that it really cooperates with new technology, to provide the best value for the end customer,” Sommer recently told Automotive News.

ZF’s strategy contrasts with other major tier one suppliers, who have turned to acquisitions and in-house technology development to gain a foothold in the autonomous vehicle space. In the past two years, Delphi has acquired data management company Movimento and autonomous driving software startup Ottomatika, and Robert Bosch invested $ 1.1 billion in a plant to manufacture its own chips for self-driving cars.

Mechanical focus

Once a human driver is no longer needed to operate a vehicle, car designs could change significantly — removing steering wheels and brakes, adding rotating seats and increasing the number of interior screens. However, throwing away driving controls won’t change everything.

“The future car, even if it is a robot car or an autonomous driving car, it needs mechanics,” Sommer said. “It needs better braking systems, better suspension systems and better steering, because the level of comfort needs to be higher if you are not involved in the driving.”

ZF is developing what Sommer calls “intelligent mechanics,” which incorporate technology like artificial intelligence and vehicle sensors into the traditional mechanics of the car.

The supplier is also reconfiguring its safety systems for self-driving car interiors. For example, ZF is working with seatmaker Faurecia to integrate seatbelts into the seat rather than the vehicle structure, allowing passengers to easily rotate their chairs. Sommer said it is also looking into alternative locations for air bags when passengers no longer face forward.

“In this new environment, all the current occupant safety means like belts and airbags, they will not work anymore,” he said.

New partners

Though ZF is turning to its core offerings to succeed in the future, Sommer said it will still need to collaborate to enhance its products and adapt them to changing demands.

The supplier has already begun to form technology partnerships — at CES in January, the company said it was working with Nvidia, which is developing artificial intelligence systems for self-driving cars, on an automated driving platform. Sommer said the supplier’s new presence in Silicon Valley will allow it to scout other potential partners, specifically in sensor development and data management.

“We want to find a collaboration model, how to integrate that technology into our offerings to the OEMs,” he said.

In addition to technology partners, Sommer said ZF is looking to invest startups in the area. Rather than acquire companies to own the technology and engineering talent, he said the supplier plans to take minority stakes, allowing startups to maintain their original culture while gaining access to their products.

Along with capital, Sommer said ZF could help budding companies reach scale through its automaker customers.

“We are the big partner in the background, guaranteeing that this technology will be available on a global basis,” he said.

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