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ZF CEO Dr. Stefan Sommer speaks to the media June 20 while new partner Dr. Rolf Breidenbach, the Hella CEO, stands by for questions. (Photo: Lindsay Brooke)

ZF and Hella launch sensor-systems development partnership

The CEOs of two century-old German suppliers faced the media together on June 20 to announce a strategic partnership. One, Dr. Stefan Sommer of ZF, famous for its transmissions, steering and driveline systems, didn’t utter a word about 12-speed gearboxes or ratio spreads. The other, Dr. Rolf Breidenbach of Hella, said nothing about LED or HID lighting. But their new partnership speaks volumes about how urgently traditional Tier 1s are transforming their businesses to meet the requirements of automated- and self-driving vehicles.

Under their new non-exclusive cooperation, ZF and Hella have begun jointly developing camera, imaging and radar systems, with the goal of entering production by 2020. The initial joint project aims at increasing camera-supported driver assistance capabilities to boost European NCAP safety performance.

Both Dr. Sommer and Dr. Breidenbach said that collaboration will allow their companies to broaden their product portfolios and bring new vehicle sensor systems to market faster than by working independently.

“We can create a wider technological foundation for safety and autonomous driving,” Dr. Sommer told Automotive Engineering during a Q&A session. He explained that while the joint development will focus on systems and utilize ZF’s systems-integration experience, each partner will continue to develop and offer its technology independently on a component level, with the aim to leverage common system architectures and product families.

Explained his Hella counterpart: “The digitalization of cars is a huge challenge for all suppliers. Therefore new kinds of cooperations are important.” Dr. Breidenbach described such open collaborations as “the role model of the future,” enabling ZF and Hella to leverage their technologies across a wider customer base and reduce cost.

In the vehicle radar market, ZF is strong in the mid- and long-range units that operate in frequencies up to 77 GHz. Hella for 15 years has specialized in the short-range (24 GHz) technology and is developing 77-GHz products as well as 360° surround view radars. “Bringing these capabilities together means we have a very good starting position to develop low-cost, high-technology products,” Dr. Breidenbach said. “This gives us a chance to benefit from ZF’s systems business.”

On cameras, Hella has been in the market for five years. It is currently offering open-system SAE Level 2 camera software and is developing Levels 3 and 4. With open system software, OEM customers can optimize the hardware and software packages for specific applications.

“We can offer all the state-of-art software functions in the camera area, but we can also integrate software functionality of a competitor,” Dr. Breidenbach said, adding that software is fast becoming the product differentiator in automotive. OEMs are looking for use cases and in the future those use cases will be realized by over-the-air software updates.

Selling software licenses as Hella’s Aglaia Mobile Vision subsidiary currently does “will become an important business model in the automotive world,” he said.

The new strategic partnership also will develop automated-driving functions for commercial vehicles and off-highway vehicles.

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