If you think of Continental, you automatically think of tires. After all, Germany’s premier tire OEM was one of the first companies in the world to jump into the then-embryonic automotive industry in 1871 and was an early pioneer in tire and rubber technology.
Times change. And although tires are hugely profitable and will always remain an important product in the company’s portfolio, Continental today is transforming itself into a transportation technology provider, developing a host of products and platforms that will enable and support emerging technologies from OEMs and other suppliers to make transportation more efficient, productive and profitable.
Continental will be showcasing much of this new technology at the IAA Commercial Vehicles Show in September in Hannover, Germany. But the company gave journalists a sneak-peek of some of its upcoming products and initiatives at a pre-IAA press briefing in Frankfurt, Germany, this past week, and HDT was one of a handful of American journalists present.
During two solid days of presentations and demonstrations, the focus was entirely on new and emerging technologies, with tires and rubber products barely mentioned at all.
Why would one of the oldest and most reputable tire suppliers on the planet make moves into fields that seem only tangentially related to its core competencies? The answer lies in the company’s heritage, according to Michael Ruf, head of Continental’s commercial vehicle and aftermarket business units. He explained that Continental was founded as a technology company and is uniquely positioned to invest in and develop new technologies that will help its fleet customers achieve better asset utilization, productivity, and efficiencies. The commitment to these goals is impressive, Ruf added, noting that Continental has more than 7,000 employees today working exclusively on emerging technologies such as vehicle telematics, big data, and active safety systems.
Continental already has carved out a respectable niche in Europe with its eHorizon telematics system as a base tech platform that OEMs, suppliers, shippers, fleets, and drivers can use with technologies today. Additionally, eHorizon has been designed as an upgradable tech platform that will serve as an expandable platform for the new and developing technologies that Ruf expects to see enter trucking in the next 10 years.
Indeed, Ruf is one of the more aggressive technology forecasters in the trucking industry. He noted that technology is not emerging in a vacuum, pointing out that 37% of German trucks on the road are under-utilized in terms of cargo capacity. Meanwhile, Europe is suffering from a debilitating driver shortage just like North America. And all forecasts project massive upticks in freight levels in the coming decade.
Ruf and Continental maintain that technology offers the only viable solutions to these complex logistics and transportation issues. Which is why he predicts that Level 5 autonomous commercial vehicles (completely driverless) will be in limited operation by 2028, following an initial introduction to autonomous technology via truck platooning operations, which he expects to see in operation in the next five years or so.
In fact, Ruf said technology will be increasingly used to address the major factors plaguing fleet productivity today and in the coming decade: insufficient/under-utilization of fleet capacity, safety and collision avoidance, a fragmented and inefficient fleet market and continued — and even heightened — regulatory pressures.
Breaking down the total cost of owning and operating a tractor-trailer in Europe, Ruf noted that the driver accounts for 29% of operational costs, second only to fuel, which accounts for 30% of operating costs. The ability in the next decade for fleets to leverage Level 5 autonomous technology and remove drivers from the tractor-trailer cost of ownership completely will be a major driver for the adoption of autonomous vehicle technology, Ruf said.
A Surprising Array of New Technology
To drive home the work it's doing with emerging transportation technologies, Continental has developed its own Innovation Truck — a slick, black-and-gold 2014 Mercedes Actros straight truck that is packed to the gills with many of the systems and products the company plans to soon have on the market in Europe.
A major issue in Europe, which is receiving increasing attention from politicians, is the number of accidents and fatalities involving right-hand turns by trucks. Keep in mind that European cities are typically narrower and more constricted than North American cities, with greater numbers of pedestrians and cyclists sharing the road with commercial vehicles. In fact, according to Continental, 92% of all right-hand turn accidents in Europe today involve cyclists.
To help fleets minimize or eliminate right-turn accidents, Continental has developed a highly sophisticated pedestrian recognition system, which can identify and track pedestrians and cyclists and even anticipate their movements in order to alert the driver when an accident is imminent. Humans and animals have been problematic for radar systems on vehicles to track accurately because of reflectivity issues (a fancy way of saying that flesh doesn’t show up on radar screens as well as metal or concrete). But the Continental system works by combining incoming data from camera systems, lidar and radar, and is so sophisticated, Continental engineers are confident it will one day be able to recognize facial expressions and use them as an accident probability indicator.
During a drive in the Innovation Truck around the Frankfurt airport, Continental also showcased how its onboard telematics system is able to take inputs from safety systems located around the vehicle and allow the driver to change camera viewing perspectives for a better all-around situational awareness. Drivers can shift the cameras to focus on a specific area on the truck, such as the rear of the trailer or the right-hand front fender. During the drive, the system was set on an overhead, 360-degree view of the driving environment, with passenger cars, stalled vehicles, construction work and infrastructure displayed in a real-time, dynamic video shown on a high-definition display mounted in the cab.
The system is augmented by Continental’s rear-view mirror camera display screens, mounted on the A pillars on the driver- and passenger side of the cab. These display screens are programmable by the driver as well, and offer various fields of view to the sides and rear of the truck, as well as a composite screen that shows several of these areas at once to give the driver greater awareness of vehicles in the truck’s blind spots. One tricky area with rear-view camera systems has been getting both the cameras and the display screens to compensate for sudden changes in light levels — like when the truck goes under an overpass or into a tunnel, for example. But Continental engineers have solved this problem with a system that immediately recognizes changing light levels and adjusts display screen contrast to give drivers unimpeded views of the traffic around the truck.
The Innovation Truck also included a demonstration of Continental’s eHorizon telematics system, which pulls in big data from a host of sources, including other vehicles, GPS and smartphones, as well as cameras, radar and lidar, to create smart cruise control modes that boost fuel economy while decreasing traffic congestion. When in cruise mode, the system is able to look 2 to 5 miles down a stretch of roadway and determine what traffic conditions are in real time. If a series of traffic lights is about to turn red, or if data shows a traffic jam up ahead, the system can shift the truck into neutral and allow it to coast along, saving fuel and maintaining forward travel until the traffic signals turn green or the traffic jam begins to clear.
A further demonstration of just how committed Continental is to staking out a leadership position in emerging technologies was the demonstration of its new sound actuator audio system, which won an award at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last year.
Continental engineers realized a couple of years ago that pretty much any material inside a truck cab can be used to broadcast sonic waves. So, instead of stereo speakers, they’ve developed compact, flat sound actuators about the size of a Hershey candy bar. These actuators are fitted to the roof of the cab just behind the front windshield, where they essentially take digital audio signals and broadcast them through the various interior surfaces in the truck. The result is a full, deep, rich audio experience that I found to be clearer and richer than most high-end stereos on the market today.
I flew into Frankfurt expecting to get two days’ worth of briefings on tire technology, low rolling resistance, siping and tread compounding. Instead, I came away with the realization that Continential is taking its commitment to be a technology leader seriously and is quickly breaking new ground on a wide array of cutting-edge technologies that will reshape trucking in the next decade and beyond. The company has clearly staked out a spot as an emerging technology leader and will be well worth watching as trucking’s technology revolution gains speed in the coming decade.