Carmakers spend big bucks to establish their brands as leaders in the race toward greater fuel efficiency and reduced emissions. Yet, many of the eco-friendly and high-tech innovations in our vehicles begin in the R&D departments of large auto suppliers—the companies that supply components and systems to automobile manufacturers. For example, you might know Continental Automotive Systems as a maker of tires, but you probably don’t know its role in the development of next-generation hybrids, diesels, lithium batteries, stability control, and wireless connectivity technologies for automobiles. We spoke with Bill Kozyra, president and CEO, Continental Automotive Systems North America, about what he sees as the three largest trends in automotive technology: sustainability, safety and connectivity.
What’s your projection for the growth of the hybrid car market?
I’m very optimistic that hybrids will continue to grow in this country. Where we’ll be in five or ten years from now, I can’t give you a percentage, but I can tell you that the current market—2.6 percent of new car sales—is going to grow every year.
We’re spending tens of millions of dollars investing in these fields, from an engineering development standpoint. We’re confident that our customers [the car companies] will be able to design in our hybrid systems, because what’s ultimately going to drive positive change is the cost side. Unless OEMs adopt consistent platforms across multiple car and truck lines, and we can be disciplined and offer that to multiple customers, it’ll never achieve economies of scale that are necessary for that technology to be fully exploited.
Continental is well positioned to support that growth with technology that we’ve developed, including for example with the lithium ion battery technology that we’re developing for General Motors for the Chevy Volt. We’re General Motors’s partners on development of lithium ion. You’ll see lithium ion batteries in production here at the end of next year, and the development is going quite well.
When you say ‘in production,’ you mean the batteries and the battery systems will be in production. But will they be placed in a production vehicle?
By the end of next year?
Yeah. Specifically in the Chevrolet Volt in late 2009.
What’s your response to critics who say there are too many issues related to safety, cost, and battery life for lithium ion automobile batteries?
We’re dealing with all those issues and have been for some years now. We believe that, along with our development partners like General Motors, we have found solutions to deal with those issues, and are quite optimistic about the expanded use of lithium ion as a great alternative power source for these vehicles.
Where does conventional technology fit in, for example, low-resistance tires?
That’s all part of the equation. When we look at the total range of Continental production, we do everything from low-resistance tires to lightweight solutions in many areas, all of which go to improve fuel economy and reduce carbon dioxide emissions. In fact, we sat down six months ago, and took all the existing Continental technologies that are available for production today, and said if you were to implement all of them ready to go in the automotive industry, we could reduce carbon dioxide emissions by some 30 to 40 percent.
Meaning, a 30 to 40 percent improvement in fuel economy.
Right. On top of that, you can add new developments. You are going to see an explosion of improvements in efficiency in vehicles, including traditional technologies such as direct gasoline injection, turbochargers, double-clutch transmission technologies that we have in production, all the way to low-resistance tires. You add all that up, and you get a significant gain.
Yet, they each come with costs.
They don’t necessarily cost anything, but they need to be designed in. The low-rolling resistance tires have to be market competitive, so there may initially be some cost associated with some of the designs. In the long-term, that won’t necessarily come with a premium.
What kind of cars do you think we’ll be driving in 2030?
In 2030, you’ll have a lot more technologies on the road including the one we demonstrated in California [at the 2007 DARPA Challenge] with our autonomously driven vehicle. This is a vehicle that drives itself. It’s a Chevy Tahoe. It still had all the attributes of a full-size SUV, but it also had the capability of driving itself. This vehicle actually had its own eyes and ears and senses to be able to navigate an urban setting with other cars on the road and be able to do that in a very safe and efficient way.
It’s a demonstration of us being able to bring all three emerging technologies together: safety, sustainability, and connectivity. You’re going to see developments on sustainability go concurrent with a continued focus on safety, which has been the focus of the industry in the last decade or so. Technologies like electronic stability control. Now coming on strong are lane detection warning and blind-spot detection, and rear-end collision avoidance. You’ll see these technologies in the next couple of years, just exploding in the industry. That will compliment everything we are doing on the power train side and from a sustainability standpoint.
To the average driver out there, self-driving cars seem pretty futuristic. Aren’t there serious technical challenges on the sustainability and the connectivity front?
Sure, there are challenges. But when you look at the rapid pace of evolution in those areas, it’s phenomenal. Just in the last few years, advances in camera technology, in the image processing software that’s available to know the difference between a line in the road and a Coca-Cola can sitting in front of the car. The radar system might pick it up as an obstacle, but the camera knows, with the fusion of the sensors together, that it’s a Coca-Cola can. You certainly wouldn’t want the full brake applied.
These are the things that are advancing very quickly now, to be able to bring in more safety and sustainability into the car.
The challenge in presenting these ideas to the public is the idea of how far away we still are.
It’s just like any technology evolution. How many cars today do not have airbags, for example? Very few. Certainly all of them have seat belts. Our vision in five to seven years is that all of them will have electronic stability control, which is the single biggest life-saving technology known to man, next to seat belts.
Fifteen years from now, the vehicle that you and I will be able to enjoy will be far more sophisticated and efficient than the vehicle we can buy today. And I think that today’s vehicles are pretty great, by the way. They’re not as great as if we had a blank check book, and economies are always a factor, but rapid development in hardware technology and the ability to enhance performance is significant each and every year.
What do you drive today?
I drive a Cadillac Escalade ESV. I compromise on the fuel efficiency, but that’s the only thing that I give up with that car. I enjoy parking assist, wireless hands-free cell phone capability, satellite radio to listen to customized music, and all the capability of stability control. And I’m driving in a vehicle that I’m comfortable in. I’m a very happen American consumer and I enjoy, for my lifestyle, driving a large vehicle. The only thing I’m compromising is fuel efficiency, but I know the next generation to come will be significantly more efficient and significantly safer.