In an exclusive interaction with ZF’s Dr Dirk Walliser, head – corporate R&D at this year’s ZF tech day, Autocar Professional gets an exclusive first-hand experience of the latest innovations showcased there and the role India plays in ZF’s innovations
What is the future you see in the automotive world, 10 years down the line?
It is always important for us to have a big-picture anchor point in the future. It does not really matter whether it is 2025 or 2030. The big picture says we have a mobility that is completely sustainable, that is CO2-neutral. It is mobility that provides better ‘mobility life balance’. It is about easy access to mobility. Cities would have two-thirds of (global) population and we want everybody to fluently pick this means of mobility and also to choose when and where to go for it. So the big picture is fluent mobility, life-friendly mobility and sustainable mobility with zero CO2 at the end.
The megatrends, like for the industry, are the same for our mobility customers as well. It is always the technology that provides connectivity. Access to the cloud, access to the IoT. We have 26 billion devices already connected into the cloud. So, connectivity access to the data is very important. At the same time, electrification is also important for us as it allows for low and zero CO2. That will not happen in another two years or so but we have to get there by 2035-36. Autonomous driving, because we have the ability with our processors and sensor sets, will become very important.
Some studies show that in inner cities, with purely autonomous traffic, we can get cycle times of less than 5 minutes. Wherever you are, you pick up your smartphone, order a vehicle and within 5 minutes you can enter and get to wherever you want. All these trends are not specific to ZF or any global region. It is for us all and brings together digitalisation and data that we can leverage and make a better proposal for it.
What are the 3-4 key pillars on which all your mid- to long-term strategies are going to be based now?
We are a technology company and a systems supplier. We have focused our system expertise and our service offering to four major fields — electric mobility, vehicle motion control, autonomous driving and integrated safety. They are all glued together with the abilities of digitalisation of data and IoT. All our systems and all our services pick pieces from these four categories.
In India, there are certain timelines that are being proposed for the auto industry to go full electric. By 2030, what percentage of the mobility industry do you think will go electric, and as far as autonomous cars are concerned when are we going to see a Level 5 autonomous vehicle on the road?
Nobody knows the percentage of electrification, but more and more cars are going to be electrified in the next few years. It depends on the energy systems that we have, the availability of green power and so on.
Our strategy is to provide technology that is pretty flexible, that is open for whatever game-changer that may come up in the next few years, battery performance and fuel cells. With the HAP plug-in hybrid, we can offer a pure ICE experience that ranges with electrification from 25kW to 160kW. So, it is very flexible depending on the customer demand.
We already have e-axles and two major customers where we have already applied the full range of electric drives today. So we have the purists that go for the electric drives right away, and then there are those who say let’s risk-mitigate the number of people that use electrification and still need a lot of range.
For autonomous vehicles, there are three major elements that we need to follow up. Legislation because you cannot operate a fully autonomous vehicle on public roads. Second, it is quite expensive. If you look at the Level 4 or 5 systems, the sensor set, the computing power, the algorithms will amount to US$ 70,000 to 100,000. It is only a few fractions of customers who would say that we will take the full option and have a car whose sensor sets alone cost $100,000. If we can assist or eliminate the driver in robo shuttles, the business case turns completely around. Then all of a sudden, you have a very small amount of depreciation, and the utilisation of the vehicle goes up. If you see the utilisation of passenger cars today, it ranges from 4 percent to 25 percent and all of a sudden it makes a lot of sense. So, there are segments where we could see autonomous vehicles launching right away. Restricted areas and the shuttle services are proof of that. They have been operating for more than 10-15 years on restricted parts with very complex traffic conditions as well.
How crucial a role is ZF's technology centre in Hyderabad playing? What are the developments taking place over there?
I am very excited about our India Technical Centre (ITC). It has great experts. They provide us support and also the lead in software technologies. We already have more than 1,000 engineers and ITC will play an even more crucial role.
We are adding another 2,500 engineers and it will become the second largest tech centre for ZF globally. At Hyderabad, we may be having more than 200 builds of software; they are tested, put into our repository and a lot of our customers have started to separate the hardware from the software. This means we can re-software every day, provide it to the customer who could decide whether to deploy it in the vehicle or not. That is why I am very excited about the smart engineers and the software they develop. We are increasing the scope of responsibility almost every month.
(This interview was first published in the July 15, 2019, issue of Autocar Professional)
Watch the full interview