Exploit Opportunities Through Innovation, Focused Investment

By Dr Holger Klein

Dr Holger Klein is a Member of the Board of Management at ZF Friedrichshafen AG, responsible for Car Chassis Technology, Aftermarket, Region Asia Pacific, Region India, Key Account Mgmt – Passenger Cars Customers Asia Pacific & India. Born in Mühlheim an der Ruhr, Germany, he studied Engineering Management and completed Ph D in Technology Management from the Technical University of Darmstadt. Having begun his apprenticeship as banker, Commerzbank AG, Frankfurt, he moved on to take various management positions at McKinsey & Company, Düsseldorf, Chicago. Klein joined ZF in 2014 as Head of Integration Management and became Head of Car Chassis Technology division, ZF Friedrichshafen AG, Dielingen.

More than one billion cars now operate on the world roads. The invention of the internal combustion engine led to the development of a strong industry, but the basic principles and technical parameters remained largely unchanged for a century. In contrast to other industries like photography, film, consumer electronics, or energy, the automotive sector generally escaped paradigm shifts.
In recent years, however, a transformation has been gathering pace and may not slow down anytime soon. The proportion of vehicles fitted with electric drive systems is increasing as we look to reduce traffic emissions while digitalisation is opening new ways of individual and public mobility. In city centres this is especially true. Here, intelligent systems are used to link different modes of transport and create completely new forms of transportation. This ongoing transformation is accompanied by various developments which themselves have a profound effect on the mobility industry already facing major disruptions in the form of electrification and autonomy.
How should a company like ZF react to these challenges, challenges that will force it to reinvent itself? Our answer: see them as opportunities and exploit them – innovation and focused investment.

New Competitors

Today’s automotive manufacturers must deal with new competitors with plenty of capital behind them, companies that were irrelevant to their business just a few years ago. Autonomous driving, arguably the most profiled of digitalisation’s applications and where the full range of digital technology comes together, accounted for a total of around 1,200 patents registered by key industry players from 2012 to 2016. More than a third of these patents were granted to high-tech companies that did not even exist just a few years ago and have no track record in the automotive manufacturing sector.
As a global technology company, ZF can bring together a wide range of products and expertise from different sectors. Connecting these products to systems allows us to offer additional benefits and add value, both to our industry customers and to users of mobility systems. Our objective is to help deliver clean and safe mobility solutions. ZF’s ‘Next-Generation Mobility’ strategy aims to provide mobility solutions that are comfortable, affordable, and available everywhere.
To reach that objective, ZF offers a number of tailor-made solutions. After all, urban centres need traffic solutions different from rural areas. Mobility services can supplement conventional forms of private car ownership. With the advent of highly automated and autonomous driving, the future will provide the technology to turn new traffic concepts into reality. This variety offers great opportunities for ZF. As a leading global technology company, we are in a position to link the world of mechanical systems with the new world of digitalisation. ZF technology enables vehicles of all kinds to see, think, and act. ZF has a clear focus on four technological areas: vehicle motion control, integrated safety, automated driving, and E-mobility.

Vehicle Motion Control

The chassis, including all the vehicle’s actuators, will continue to play a key role in ensuring vehicles are safe, comfortable, and efficient. ZF can network and align virtually all the systems that effect longitudinal, transverse, or vertical acceleration as well as deceleration. Whether it is a passenger car, a people mover, a truck, or a bus, our technology helps to make sure they can all get on the road quietly and safely.

Integrated Safety

One day, driverless cars and intelligent traffic routing could potentially make accidents a thing of the past. However, that day is still far off, and systems in different parts of the world will develop at different rates. This means occupant safety is set to remain an important requirement, especially in mixed traffic. When it comes to safety, ZF offers the most comprehensive safety technology portfolio available today. It ranges from sensor technology, brakes, steering systems, and seat belts to airbags, electronics, and active chassis systems fitted with a rear axle that can actively steer the vehicle.

Automated Driving

Automated driving will help make mobility safer and more comfortable. As a systems supplier, we are in a unique position to take advantage of this trend, because we can combine our automotive expertise with our ecosystem of partner knowledge to provide our customers with a full range of solutions under one roof. Automated functions will most likely first come to not only public transport and commercial vehicles operating in areas with reduced traffic complexity such as mining and farming but also at airports or university campuses.



In many parts of the world, zero-emission transport is a high priority, as our major cities continue to grow. In many cases, hybrid drive systems or fully electric cars are already available options. ZF is supplying core components for these vehicles, from electric motors and power electronics to complete systems for all types of vehicles, from electric scooters to 40-tonne trucks. We believe that electrification will come but its breakthrough will happen at different speeds and with different technologies depending on the market needs.

Harmony Of Tradition, Innovation

The key to success is bringing the best of both the worlds together in harmony. Digitalisation is not replacing mechanical engineering, it is sending it into a different orbit. In response, ZF is making the range of systems it can supply more comprehensive and up-to-date than ever before. At the same time, we are providing a unique offering to our customers, from established firms to new players, all of whom rely on our market-leading expertise to anticipate tomorrow’s challenges and stay one step ahead. Innovation is the key lever that will generate tomorrow’s business. The ZF ProAI RoboThink supercomputer – the most powerful AI-capable supercomputer in the mobility sector – is a prime example of this. The top-of-the-range version of this scalable supercomputer can process up to 600 trillion calculations per second. This enables it to connect and process the data flow from internal and external sensors, cloud-based inputs and car-to-x communication in real time, supporting precision control of the actuators in the drive system and chassis. Real-time data processing and algorithms based on artificial intelligence are an essential prerequisite for Level-4 vehicles capable of operating safely in public traffic.


Concept Vehicles

The ZF coPILOT system, which saw its global premiere at Auto Shanghai 2019, is one example of how existing advanced driver assistance systems can be combined more effectively. It is equipped with AI, can be controlled with voice commands, and can handle specific driving manoeuvres independently, such as merging into or exiting the freeway. ZF coPILOT can also keep the vehicle in the right lane, change lanes, overtake and merge automatically. The system constantly monitors surrounding traffic events, recognising pedestrians and oncoming traffic.
ZF coPILOT system includes sensors and functions that monitor the driver and trigger warnings when safety risks arise. For example, if the driver is distracted, their view moves away from the traffic on the road, or they show signs of fatigue.
The coPILOT is equipped with speech recognition technology, allowing the driver to launch, operate, and shut down the assistance system quickly and easily with voice commands. Its wide range of functions increases both comfort and safety and is more advanced than current Level-2 systems, which is why we call it ‘Level-2+.’ It can also be used now, as SAE Level-3 highly automated driving is not yet approved or remains restricted in many countries. ZF intelligent navigation system featuring ‘MyRoute’ performs a mapping function that uses AI to recognise repeating routes.

Market-specific Innovation

Our innovations and investments are focused on dynamic, growing markets and their specific requirements. We spent Euro 2.5 billion on research and development last year, or 6.7 percent of the Group sales revenue. It is an investment that underlines the importance of future technologies for ZF. Over the same period, we employed 17,100 staff in research and development, many of them at our 19 primary global research and development locations.
Our R&D activities are guided by strategic decisions at the organisational level designed to increase efficiency and accelerate innovation. We will continue to invest in the coming years, especially in China, where more high-level investments will expand our already significant footprint. Our approach can be summarised in three words: local for local. Many of the products we will put into production in China in the coming years will be developed, adapted, and manufactured in China and delivered directly to Chinese customers.


Speed of innovation is key in realizing the ambitious goals of our industry and ZF. That is why we have invested in or partnered with a wide variety of startups and specialist firms to speed up ZF’s transformation.
For example, the ZF ProAI supercomputer platform in many cases is powered by Nvidia chipsets. On the other hand, we are working with many different partners such as Baidu in China and across the world to develop comprehensive solutions for autonomous driving, including solutions specifically designed for the Chinese market. Interiors specialist Faurecia has been a partner for our new safety concepts, and we are supporting e.GO Mobile AG to develop all-electric, autonomous vehicles and cargo movers. To strengthen our presence in the mobility services sector (also known as ‘mobility/transport as a service’), which is expected to become a seminal area for the company, we recently acquired a majority shareholding in the Dutch company 2getthere. The company is working on applications ranging from driverless electric transport systems at airports to urban transport infrastructure. In the same field, our partnership with Transdev will help us deliver autonomous driving for passenger and goods transport.

Looking To The Future

At ZF, we are actively shaping the transformation of the automotive industry and our company as well. With a combination of actions at the organisational strategic and research and engineering areas, we are making the most of the rapidly expanding megatrends in the mobility industry. Our culture of innovation means we are well-equipped to deal with whatever challenges the future throws at us.

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