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At CES, ZF used the cloud to link a car in Vegas to servers in Germany, employing AI to teach the car based on simulations created in Germany. (ZF)

ZF’s CES blitz underscores industry shifts

The Consumer Electronics Show has become a centerpiece for advanced automotive technologies, highlighting the huge industry transition driven connectivity and convenience. Partnerships are now a central part of strategic plans (and the CES news cycle), as are forays into new segments into the digital world.

With several partnership and product announcements in Las Vegas, ZF Friedrichshafen represents a microcosm of these changes. Before acquiring TRW in 2015, ZF was known for transmissions. At CES, several announcements by the company highlight the impact of digital technologies.

The fifth-largest Tier 1 detailed partnerships with Microsoft for cloud computing, with Baidu’s research group for autonomous research, and with IBM and UBS for automated payment technology.

ZF also touted its ProAI hardware, which uses Nvidia chips to handle a range of functions. The module can be updated with Nvidia’s Xavier processor, which manages up to 30 trillion operations per second ( ProAI is the engine for Baidu’s autonomous program, which includes a valet parking program. It's also an autonomous driving platform that’s being designed in conjunction with a Chinese automaker. ZF also has an internal autonomous effort.

ProAI also underpins Car eWallet, a payment system that lets cars pay for parking, tolls and other services when they’re in autonomous mode. IBM provides cloud connections and blockchain technology that ensure that changes can’t be made in the record of events that occur during a transaction. UBS provides financial service knowledge so drivers can send a car with valet parking capability into a parking lot while the driver goes to his or her destination, for example.

ZF is addressing these advanced technologies with a broad strategy that includes an outreach to startups and non-traditional automotive suppliers, as well as a program that encourages employees to come up with ideas that can help the company broaden its presence in the rapidly-changing automotive industry. Many of the strategies that address these new markets are managed by Mamatha Chamarthi, who became ZF’s first Chief Digital Officer in 2016.

“We are exploring several disruptive technologies, the cloud, the Internet of Things and new trends like the shared economy,” Chamarthi said. “We look at every idea to see how closely it fits with our Vision Zero goals of achieving zero accidents and zero emissions.”

Cloud computing will be a key aspect for many automotive programs, letting companies predict failures so they can be addressed early while augmenting safety and navigation by improving communications and mapping. ZF is using Microsoft’s Azure platform for fleet management services, ride sharing and delivery services. Teaming with Microsoft gives ZF a global reach.

“We have data centers around the globe, so companies can provide services without worrying about regional privacy and security issues,” said Rohit Bhargava, Industry Technology Strategist at Microsoft. “We also store data on servers in three different regions so it’s available even if there’s a problem at one site.”

Cloud computing is also a key element in ZF’s work in ridesharing. A partnership with door2door, a startup in Berlin, aims to use autonomous vehicles to move people and light cargo. The door2door app also helps riders find restaurants or other services/locations of interest.

Arranging a number of partnerships is a central factor for most automotive companies as they struggle to provide the many services and functions that are becoming available as electronics and software advance. As part of its ecosystem, ZF is also partnering with companies that can help it use artificial intelligence in a range of areas. At CES, the company used the cloud to link a car in Vegas to servers in Germany, employing AI to teach the car based on simulations created in Germany.

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