In the world of top-tier suppliers for global automotive and commercial vehicle markets, ZF has been on the forefront of technological change since it was founded in 1915 to build airship transmissions. Today, in addition to its core competencies in transmissions, suspensions, steering systems, and virtually any established vehicle system you can name, ZF also has become a leader in emerging technologies such as vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communications, advanced safety systems, and autonomous vehicle technology.
In this exclusive HDT interview, Mitja Schulz, senior vice president and general manager, Commercial Steering Systems, ZF TRW, talks about the company's latest developments and their implications for the commercial vehicle market.
HDT: What would you like HDT readers to know about ZF?
Schulz: ZF is one of the largest suppliers of automotive and commercial vehicle products worldwide, with global revenues of over $40 billion. Our Commercial Vehicles division has revenues of over $4 billion, annually, although historically, ZF has had a much smaller share of the commercial vehicle market in North America.
HDT: But now it seems your presence in North America is growing.
Schulz: Yes. Two years ago, ZF acquired American automotive systems supplier TRW. And this acquisition provided us with a much larger commercial vehicle footprint here. TRW’s product lines also gave us the technology portfolio to complement the ZF intelligent mechanical systems, positioning ZF to be a leader in the key megatrends which are driving the market today.
HDT: How is ZF positioned to support these Megatrends?
Schulz: ZF is very well positioned to support customers in these three areas: automated/autonomous driving, e-mobility, and safety.
ZF is also uniquely positioned with the electronic sensor technology which came with the acquisition of TRW – this includes camera and radar systems which have long been available in the passenger car industry. These products have been making the transition to commercial vehicles in recent years. And today, we are working to accelerate the integration of these products and systems, and using our economies of scale in our passenger car business to help develop new products for trucks, economically manufacture them, and then ensure they are rugged enough to endure the environment and life cycle of commercial vehicles today.
HDT: How would you characterize ZF’s approach to these emerging technologies and how they are deployed on commercial vehicles?
Schulz: In addition to our acquisition of TRW, ZF maintains partnerships with many other companies worldwide. Our internal slogan, “See – Think – Act,” guides us to create advanced driver assistance systems, or ADAS, that “see” the environment around a vehicle, then process any sensor data through safety and vehicle controllers that “think” about the safest curse of action to deal with driving conditions, and then provide the actuators with the instructions needed to "act" and respond accordingly. The result is a safer and more efficient vehicle and roadway for other motorists. Our global partners include well-known automotive suppliers such as Nvidia, Bai du, Hella, Faurecia, Ibeo automotive, doubleSlash, and Astyx.
HDT: How does ZF manage the integration of all these technologies from companies all around the globe into the historically diverse population of North American truck OEMs?
The North American commercial vehicle market is unique with manufacturers of all sizes, some aligned with major automotive companies and some which are smaller manufacturers targeting niche markets. To serve this market, ZF is very flexible in the way which our technologies are integrated into vehicles. You may see some suppliers which only offer their products as a bundle. We can work with OEMs to integrate our full suite of products, or just the products they require. At the same time, our size allows us to serves as a sort of remote research and development team for the emerging products and systems we specialize in. This minimizes the burden for the OEM to be an expert in all the systems, or to manage a manufacturing and supply chain for those systems and products.
HDT: What if an OEM has a proprietary system they would rather spec on their own vehicles?
Schulz: In that case, we are flexible enough to supply the components that can make that system perform to its full potential. Not all vehicle manufacturers are the same, and we know in a dynamic market we must be prepared to meet the needs of our customers big or small. In the end, the fleet customer/end user wants a system that helps him lower his running cost per mile, and these advanced safety technologies can do just that. So we always keep the customers’ needs foremost in mind.
HDT: Speaking of fleets, how is ZF now supporting fleet customers in North America?
Schulz: ZF actively works with fleets and vehicle operators to understand what their major constraints and issues are so so that we can ensure our products are developed in a way that helps to improve both operations and return on investment for any new technologies they spec. We do this by working actively with fleets in a variety of ways, including joint fleet teams, aftermarket support, offering a broad product portfolio, fleet product testing, technical training, fleet forums and product demonstrations.
HDT: I know from a recent visit to ZF’s TMW facility in Indiana that you are now working on new advanced steering systems for commercial vehicles. What is the value will these types of systems have for fleets in the near future?
Schulz: These ADAS and Reax advanced steering products will help to improve vehicle safety by giving drivers better control of their vehicles regardless of road conditions or when they are tired. Today, 38% of truck accidents in North America are due to unplanned lane departures – an accident rate even higher than the number of rear-end collisions in trucking today. As a result, North American fleets have been making greater investments in rear collision mitigation systems to improve safety and reduce operating costs through accident reduction. Our Reax Advanced Steering system, coupled with our cameras and radar algorithms of the ADAS system, presents a real opportunity for even greater safety and cost savings through additional accident reduction abilities for fleets. As a result, profitability is improved through greater safety and efficiency.