The Germany-based technology company ZF is not particularly well known here in North America, but in Europe it is a household name in auto and truck circles as a major supplier of components for high-end sporting sedans and for top quality suspension, steering, axles and transmissions for light, medium and heavy trucks
ZF is pretty well represented here, supplying just about every shock absorber used by Freightliner, as well as power steering components and suspension parts, and it is the manufacturer of the Meritor FreedomLine automated transmission.
ZF is all about transmissions, having started out in 1915 as the geartrain division of the mighty Zeppelin airship company. Those early, lighter-than-air craft carried their four engines inside the huge gas envelope, with the propellers and their drives being the external part of the propulsion system. Those transmissions included a 90-degree angle turn, and Zahnradfabrik quickly became synonymous with reliable transmission systems.
The FreedomLine, or AS Tronic as it is known at home, is just one of many heavy transmissions the company makes for commercial vehicles. In Europe they go from the small, lightweight Ecolite, eTronic and AS Tronic lite conventional and automated transmissions for light and medium commercials, though the ZF Ecosplit splitter and range-change heavy manual transmission and the AS Tronic automated 12- and 16-speeds. All are distinguished by the highest quality gear forming and finishing and very sophisticated electronic controls that gain feedback as they are driven, to deliver the top performance and fuel economy. The company is also on the cutting edge of car transmission technology, supplying 6-, 7- and 8-speed automatics to the likes of BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Audi.
Now, that leading edge technology is being allied to truck reliability and durability in the PowerLine, a torque-converter transmission that will be in the upcoming Nissan next-generation light/medium truck due for launch in North America in the 2010 timeframe.
PowerLine is an all-new 6-speed powershift covering torques between 440 and 740 pounds-feet and fits between the ZF passenger car transmissions and the torque-converter transmissions for medium and heavy trucks that are also in the ZF line-up. The 6-speed is claimed to be significantly more economical than other powershift transmissions because of its innovating torque converter that locks very early. It is designed for 500,000-mile durability and needs only one oil change and no filters over its life. It is lightweight, and the hydraulic controls and sensors are integrated so in addition to gasoline and diesel pickups, the target markets include school buses in the U.S.
To showcase the PowerLine and other ZF technologies that will be center stage of the company's exhibit at the giant IAA Hanover truck show this month, ZF organized a technology and driving day for world trucking press. We drove trucks and buses around the storied Nurburgring German race circuit.
In the course of a day, I enjoyed re-establishing my relationships with cabovers, driving the AS Tronic in the techno tour-de-force MAN TGX high cabover. Others driven included an Iveco Stralis heavy with the EcoSplit manual and a couple of light but amazingly smooth and intelligent light transmissions in Iveco EuroCargo and a small Nissan Cabstar.
The real oddball was a full-sized Ford pickup with its PowerStroke diesel and an early version of the PowerLine intended for the upcoming Nissan truck.
The Ford had been shipped to Germany for the transmission installation, despite ZF having a well-equipped engineering center at Northville in the Detroit area.
The installation was slick: The transmission is short and light (compared with its nearest Allison competition). And it has a lot of the highly sophisticated torque-converter lockup technology from those dual-clutched multi-speed autos in the sporting sedans. The result is a transmission that is smooth as silk, picking up gears very quickly and downshifting with no muss, no fuss. In fact, wheeling the Ford around the test track was an out-and-out sporty exercise compared with some of the other bus and truck equipment.
To be sure, the automated mechanical transmission has its virtues, but the powershift transmission gets a vehicle up to speed quicker than any mechanical. And with the latest technologies, the fuel penalty is non-existent and could even save fuel with its clean, optimized shifting.
It could be that the new PowerLine will change the footprint of ZF in North American truck circles, propelling it into the forefront as it is in Europe.