Continental: Engineering the Future

Gary S. Vasilash

You can let the future happen, or you can help shape it. When it comes to automotive technology, the people at Continental are pursuing the latter course in a massive way.

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Historically, one might think of automotive suppliers in the context of those firms that made a part or maybe an assembly or even a whole module. But fairly discrete, finite, bounded things. Not the big-picture things that OEMs are thought to be dealing with.

If there is any question about how the supply base is undergoing a transformation that could arguably be more profound than that of the OEMs (after all, OEMs, as a rule, depend on the developments of their suppliers, developments that get integrated into their vehicles, especially as the “make-to-print” era is well behind us), just listen to Dr. Elmar Degenhart, CEO of Continental AG (continental-corporation.com):

“Our three focal points are:

1. Preparing the way from assisted to automated driving.
2. Technically implementing the largely complete, intelligent interconnectivity of vehicles, vehicle users, and the traffic infrastructure.
3. And increasing the efficiency of drives and developing electric mobility.”

Remember: Continental is a supplier. Yet Degenhart’s development agenda is so comprehensive and wide-reaching it sounds like something that wouldn’t merely come from an OEM but something like the vision of a national lab. But because Continental is a supplier and not a national lab, it is essential that it make the things that it can profitably provide to its customers so his agenda is practical, not theoretical or rhetorical. That is: the vision must be manifest in fairly discrete, finite, bounded things.

This is not the stuff of a futurist, although even three years ago to hear someone say "Preparing the way from assisted to automated driving” would provoke an eye roll among industry insiders at the very least.

Yet Degenhart and his team are developing—and have developed—specific technologies that are making that future now. “We currently make about 60% of our automotive sales with advanced driver assistance systems and other digitalized technologies such as electronics, sensor systems and software. Last year [2014] those sales exceeded €12 billion. We expect that, in the next five years, growth here will outperform the average growth in the automotive sector.”

That’s because electronics, sensor systems and software are all key elements in driving forward today’s and tomorrow’s vehicles. (This is not to say that Continental doesn’t make things that aren’t electronics, sensors and software. For example, it makes an array of products ranging from hydraulic brakes to polyamide transmission crossbeams.)

Beyond Mirrors.
Consider the side- and rear-view mirrors in a car. The side-view mirrors are generally difficult for most drivers to adjust so that there are no blind spots (which has led to sensors that serve as the basis of blind-spot detection systems) and they cause aerodynamic drag, which can have an effect on fuel efficiency. And glare—particularly at night as a result of vehicles behind one’s own—is a typical problem with the rear-view mirror, to say nothing of the blind spots that can be created by a vehicle’s C- and D-pillars.

So Conti has developed a proposed system that uses three cameras in place of the three mirrors. According to Alfred Eckert, director of the Advanced Engineering Dept. in Continental’s Chassis & Safety Div., “There are no blind spots in this camera monitor system. The effects of unwanted optical phenomena such as glare and weak light can also be compensated.” (These are addressed through the use of a High Dynamic Range (HDR) function in the cameras, which optimizes the lighting conditions on the interior monitors; the prototype setup uses two monitors based on organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs) oriented toward the driver such that there are views from the rear and sides of the vehicle readily viewed.)

In terms of the location of the cameras themselves, the two side-view cameras are located at the base of the A-pillars in small, pyramid-shaped housings (Eckert: “By eliminating the wing mirrors, we have created an additional benefit because the vehicle’s air resistance is reduced. The low drag coefficient reduces fuel consumption, and wind flow noise at higher speeds is diminished.”); the third camera is integrated into the base of the GPS antenna.

In addition to a greater, better view of the surrounding environment, Dr. Otmar Schreiner, head of R&D at Interior Electronics Solutions in Continental’s Interior Div., suggests that if these camera-based monitors become approved (apparently, there is a good likelihood of approval in 2016 via the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe Regulation 46), additional driver information could be included in the images on the monitors: it “opens up the possibility of providing situational instructions on the monitors.” Meaning, this simply wouldn’t be a system showing what is surrounding the vehicle in a superior way to mirrors, but it could actually provide the driver with tips, recommendations or instructions (think, for example, of how on many backup monitor systems there are lines indicating the track of the wheels as the vehicle is reversed: this approach could be amplified.)

And as the implementation of camera systems rolls forward, they’re looking at the deployment of software that can perform object recognition and classification from the information obtained by the mono cameras, which contributes to advanced driver assistance functions.

While the technology itself is real, arguably one might point out that this is something of “the future,” even if that future is measured in months from now.

Beyond Cameras.
But consider this: a CMOS (complementary metal-oxide-semiconductor) camera integrated with a lidar sensor that transmits three pulsed infrared beams with a 905-nm wavelength. This is a product—“Multi-Function Camera with Lidar”—that Conti started supplying to Toyota in 2015 for the OEM’s “Toyota Safety Sense” system. What this does, in part, is use the camera to classify an object, then the lidar to calculate the distance of the vehicle to the object. That, then, can be used to initiate automatic emergency braking should it be necessary.

In this case, the future is now.

Beyond Maps.
Another development they are working on is to transform their eHorizon system—which has been used in commercial vehicles—from one that’s static to one that’s dynamic. Essentially, the eHorizon system supplements a navigation system with information regarding changes in elevations. So should a truck be driving up or down a hill, the powertrain can be adjusted for purposes of optimizing fuel efficiency.

Now they’re working to create a system that takes in data from the infrastructure and surrounding vehicles to have essentially a real-time dynamic map of the road conditions. And they’re also doing their part to contribute to this data base. According to Degenhart, “In the future, we will be installing sensors in tires”—Conti is one of the world’s leading OEM and aftermarket tire manufacturers—“which will enable the car to detect the condition of the road’s surface.” (Nikolai Setzer, who heads up the Tire Div., points out what is obvious and consequently often overlooked: the tire is the only portion of a vehicle that has direct contact with the road surface, so if you want to know what’s going on on the road itself, then the tire is a place where you can perform your detection.) Degenhart continues, “Tires will therefore become a key part of our sensor network in the car. On this basis, we are working on a complete system for anticipatory driving that is able to learn.” This is not to say that they won’t continue to deploy things like wheel-slip sensors, but that there can readily be an additional source of data via the instrumented tire.

While there is concern among some people in the global auto industry that young people are becoming less interested in automobiles—which isn’t a good thing whether you’re an OEM or a supplier—Degenhart makes an observation that is completely germane to this whole situation: “Young people ask why the most expensive technology”—as in a car—“is the least connected?” This is probably one thing that is well understood in places like Silicon Valley (where Continental Intelligent Transportation Systems has been established), where “connectivity” means a whole lot more than mobile access to Facebook.

This goes to automated driving (where there is driver involvement, as required or as desired), which is not the same thing as autonomous driving (where the driver is a passenger). 
 

Beyond Gasoline.
But Degenhart’s third point can’t be lost sight of: “increasing the efficiency of drives and developing electric mobility.” As global regulations for fuel efficiency and emissions rise, there is little question that the electrification of the powertrain is essential in order for automakers to meet the standards.

José Avila, who heads up Continental’s Powertrain Div., is bullish on the potential of the hybridization of vehicles—using engines in combinations with advanced electrical systems—particularly in the short term, as this is a cost-effective means of achieving fuel economy improvements. A few years hence—in the 2020-2022 timeframe—he sees that through battery technology developments that will increase the range of vehicles (to about 200 miles) while reducing costs and due to regulations related to global warming, there will be a greater proliferation of highly electrified vehicles.

But they’re not waiting for batteries; they are developing systems to leverage the capabilities of engines without necessarily requiring a major overhaul under the hood.

For example, there is the company’s VSS—Voltage Stabilization System, which is having its first U.S. application in models of the Cadillac ATS and CTS, though there has been extensive use in European-made vehicles. This is a key element to improve start-stop systems. While start-stop systems have been around for a while, the difference with this system, which helps improve fuel economy and lower emissions (i.e., if the engine isn’t running, it isn’t burning fuel), is that while start-stop systems may require a secondary battery or an additional DC/DC converter, VSS uses an ultracapacitor. When the brake pedal is released and the accelerator pedal is depressed, the 12-V battery starts the car, but the ultracapacitor boosts the battery and electrical system, thereby stabilizing the flow of electricity in the vehicle. And because the ultracap is supplementing the battery, the battery is expected to have a longer life than would be the case were it to be regularly starting the vehicle on its own.

Going further than the 12-V system, Continental is pursuing 48-V hybrid architectures. Explaining the approach, Avila says, “The aim will be to be to achieve even greater efficiency benefits with less installation space and weight while keeping costs the same. The integration architecture of a 48-V system can make a big contribution here. That is why we are developing other architecture solutions for the period after 2020.”

But it has solutions available before 2020, such as its 48-V Eco Drive, which is going to be installed in several vehicles in 2016. This system integrates the starter generator into the engine’s belt drive. In tests based on the New European Driving Cycle (NEDC), it has demonstrated fuel savings of 13%.

As for 2020, Continental is working with another supplier, Schaeffler (schaeffler-group.com), on a module that features a 48-V belt-starter generator (BSG) and integrated belt drive. Named the “P2-BSG,” this system is engineered so that it is side-mounted between the engine and the transmission. By fitting a second coupling in front of the P2-BSG, it can be driven by the belt, without the need of being driven by the engine. It is expected to be ready for volume production by 2020.

Then there is a third-generation approach that they’re pursuing, the P2-ISG, which is located directly between the engine and the transmission. The “I” stands for “integrated”: unlike the BSG, it is not belt-driven, which eliminates the friction losses caused by a belt. This is expected to be ready for prime time by 2025.

The people at Continental are not waiting for the electrified, automated automotive future.

They are engineering it.