The Transformation at ZF

By Gary S. Vasilash

One of the aspects of the industry’s transition to electric vehicles that doesn’t get a whole lot of attention is that suppliers are responsible for large portions of a vehicle, so as there is the move from internal combustion engines to electric motors, as there is an increase in the importance of software, suppliers need to undergo a transition. . .or they will find themselves under water in short order.

However, making the switch isn’t like throwing a switch.

There are existing competencies within an organization—the things that allowed it to be selected as a supplier in the first place.

But now those competencies, while not completely irrelevant—let’s not lose sight of the fact that internal combustion engines aren’t going away for several more years—are less important within a supplier’s portfolio.

And there is the abiding issue of having the financial wherewithal to make the change, both from the standpoints of people and installed base of capital equipment.

Regardless of what list of the top suppliers you consult, you’ll find ZF right up there.

(Image: ZF)

Going Mobility

Martin Fischer heads up ZF’s operations in North America.

He describes what ZF is now as “a technology supplier to the mobility industry.”

Were you to ask someone in the industry about what ZF is just a few years ago, they’d probably answer, “The company that makes those impressive eight-speed automatic transmissions.”

While the company continues to produce those eight-speeds, Fischer says on this edition of “Autoline After Hours” that they’re not going to be making more investments in eight-speeds.

There are other things on the agenda.

Fischer says the focus today is on technologies related to autonomous driving, electric drive systems and components, and integrated safety, technologies that are both physical and digital.

To help the company move to new places, Fischer says they first started out with small teams that developed products, then integrated those people into the larger company so that everyone becomes involved.

The classic portfolio that ZF has had is undergoing a significant change, with everything from controllers that it is collaborating with NVIDIA on to electric motors to steer-by-wire systems and more. Not the sort of things that one might imagine a “classic” supplier would have the wherewithal to do–at automotive scale and quality.

What ZF is doing is essentially a masterclass in maintaining relevance in a changing industry.

Talking to Fischer are “Autoline’s” John McElroy, Lindsay Brooke of Automotive Engineering, and me.

You can see the show here.

The 2023 NACTOY Finalists

By Gary S. Vasilash*

The finalists for the 2023 North American Car, Truck and Utility Vehicle of the Year awards were announced today in Los Angeles at the LA Auto Show.

A full third of the finalists are no surprise:

  • Chevrolet Silverado ZR2
  • Ford F-150 Lightning
  • Lordstown Endurance

That’s because those trucks were in the semifinalist category, too, and as there are groups of three. . .

As for the cars, there is something of an interesting divergence.

There are the Acura Integra, the Genesis G80 EV and the Nissan Z.

The Integra and the Z are both sporty cars from brands that are, comparatively speaking, well established.

Genesis is a comparatively new marque. And not only is the G80 EV an (obviously) electric vehicle while both the others have internal combustion under their hoods, it is more of a stately, stylish sedan, not something that would likely end up as a screensaver on the gear of pre-licensed teens.

And then there are the utilities.

All electric vehicles:

  • Cadillac LYRIQ
  • Genesis GV60
  • Kia EV6

The Cadillac and the Genesis are both in the luxury category, while the Kia is a mass-market vehicle.

The LYRIQ is Cadillac’s first major step toward becoming an all-electric company. The GV60 is the first purpose-built EV for the Genesis brand (e.g., there is a non-EV G80). And in the case of Kia, it is no stranger to EVs, as it has had both the Niro and Soul with that powertrain option for a few years.

Every year the NACTOY judges have some challenging choices. This year I’d say they are particularly demanding.

One thing is certain, however: an electric powertrain will certainly be under the hood of one of the winners, and it is completely possible it could run the table.

*I am a NACTOY juror, so I don’t want to make any specific predictions beyond that EV one.

End of the Line for the NSX

The last Acura NSX, a Type S, was built today at the Performance Manufacturing Center (PMC) in Marysville, Ohio.

The NSX–this, the second generation–has been in production since 2016.

The last Acura NSX Type S. (Image: Acura)

The supersports car is powered by a hybrid that combines a 520-hp, twin-turbo V6 with a motor generator in the rear and a twin traction motor in the front, all of which means the NSX has a combined horsepower of 600.

And while no one probably spent too much time thinking about this who had the chance to drive one, the EPA fuel economy ratings are 21 city, 22 highway and 21 mpg combined.

The car has a top speed of 191 mph and gets 21 mpg.

Amazing.

Today’s build was #350 of 350.

The associates at the manufacturing center are now building the 2023 Acura TLX Type S PMC Edition. There will be a build of 300.

But there is nothing like the NSX.

OEMs and Diversity

The Rainbow PUSH/Citizenship Education Fund (CEF) Automotive Project has been conducting an analysis of automakers since 2012, determining diversity in:

  • Employment
  • Advertising
  • Marketing
  • Procurement
  • Dealer Development
  • Philanthropy

In keeping with an automotive theme, the organization would score the companies in these categories as Red, Yellow, Green.

The 2022 scorecard has been released.

And for the first time in 10 years, not a single Red light.

What’s more, both General Motors and Toyota received five Green lights each.

All good.

“But we cannot afford to be complacent,” said Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, founder and president of Rainbow PUSH, who added, “our work is far from done.”

Still, their work, and that done within the automotive OEMs, is showing measured improvement.

How To Achieve a Smooth Ride

By Gary S. Vasilash

Noise-canceling headphones work not by adding something like the hissing of white noise to take the place of the annoying sound that you’re trying to minimize, but by, well, canceling the noise.

That is, sound takes the form of waves. The headphones determine that nature of those waves then generate a counterwave which has the effect of canceling the original wave.

Automotive OEMs have been using tech of this sort to make the cabins of cars quieter. Again it is a matter of detecting the noise that is to be eliminated, creating a counter wave, then playing it through the speakers of the audio system.

So sound is waves, or vibrations.

There is something else that vehicles encounter that create vibrations: road surfaces. Because they are not absolutely smooth, there are some vibrations. Because most ordinary roads are far from being absolutely smooth, there are lots of vibrations.

What about detecting those vibrations and then setting up counter vibrations in the suspension system?

That is, simplistically put, what Massachusetts-based ClearMotion is doing with a system that is one part software and one part mechatronics. The software portion takes care of determining what the vibrations are that need to be countered; the mechatronics portion produces the motion that is necessary to perform the task. There are four Activalve units for a given vehicle, one on each corner.

Christian Steinmann, ClearMotion CEO, says that not only does the setup provide a smoother ride—something that will be increasingly important as there are increased levels of autonomy, which means that people will be able to do things like read or watch videos rather than keeping their eyes on the road—but it enhances the overall handling of the vehicle.

Steinmann talks about the system on this edition of “Autoline After Hours.” Joining “Autoline’s” John McElroy and me is freelance auto journalist Jack Nerad.

And you can see the show here.

By the way: the analogy to noise-cancelling headphones isn’t a fanciful one: ClearMotion acquired the Bose Ride business, Project Sound active suspension and software to develop into its system.

Audi’s Identity Issue

By Gary S. Vasilash

2018 saw the launch of the Audi e-tron, the German’s first production EV. Even then knowing where the interest was developing (things like the Tesla Model S notwithstanding), the folks in Ingolstadt determined that an SUV was the body style to launch.

Since then, Audi has sold about 150,000 of the vehicles.

Audi Q8 e-tron. (Image: Audi)

Maybe they figured that what the heck an “e-tron” was was something that kept it from gaining significantly more traction in the market.

So for the new model the name has been changed to “Q8 e-tron.”

The company had some equity in the Q8 name for its SUV. So it has appended it to the electric variants (there is also the Q8 Sportback e-tron).

Audi puts it: “By renaming this model the Q8, Audi is making a clear statement that the Audi Q8 e-tron is the flagship model among its electric SUVs and Coupe SUVs.”

Perhaps that will resolve what is arguably an identity crisis in the market.

However, the company goes on to maintain, “The Audi Q8 e-tron and Q8 Sportback e-tron are immediately identifiable as fully electric models, marked out by the new front and rear designs that carry Audi’s electric design language forward.”

There it may be a bit misled. The whole “immediately identifiable as fully electric models” is more than a slight exaggeration.

It was probably that sort of thinking that led Audi marketers to think back in 2018 that prospective customers would immediately know that the e-tron was an electric Q8 by another name.

Seems that that didn’t work out particularly well sales-wise.

Bob Purcell: from the EV1 to the VIA Skateboard Chassis

By Gary S. Vasilash

Bob Purcell has been in the EV space for a number of years. In the early 1990s when General Motors was developing the EV1 Purcell was involved. He was to become the head of the then-newly formed Advanced Technology Vehicles Division at the company. After nearly 17 years at GM Purcell left the corporation and worked at companies involved in batteries and electric propulsion systems.

Purcell is now the CEO of VIA Motors, which is a producer of an electric skateboard chassis for application in Class 2 through Class 5 cargo vans, trucks and buses.

The skateboard chassis allows an array of upfitting opportunities. (Image: VIA Motors)

Although he had his start with a passenger car (the EV1), Purcell is convinced that commercial vehicles are the ideal place for electric propulsion.

As he explains on this edition of “Autoline After Hours” this is because the total cost of ownership of an electric truck is less than that of one with a thermal engine, thanks to things like reduced maintenance requirements. In addition to which, he says there is a 4:1 per mile cost benefit (electricity vs. liquid fuel). All things that add up to improvements to the bottom line of commercial carriers.

(While personal vehicle owners can also experience the same advantages, it isn’t often—if ever—that you hear the buyer of a new EV say, “I got this because the life-cycle costs are a distinct advantage.”)

Purcell talks with “Autoline’s” John McElroy, Sam Abuelsamid of Guidehouse Insights, and me on the show.

Beyond his discussion of what they’re doing at VIA, Purcell shares plenty of insights on both his career as well as the overall EV landscape. The man is clearly an EV proponent, but unlike many boosters of the tech, Purcell has a deep base of knowledge in the space, which makes him far more credible than the average EV enthusiast.

And you can see the show here.

Will Twitter Doom Tesla?

“Future Paths of Electric Vehicle Adoption in the United States: Predictable Determinants, Obstacles and Opportunities,” a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper by James E. Archsmith, Erich Muehlegger and David S. Rapson that was published in June 2021, includes a point that may have some serious implications for Elon Musk and his exceedingly expensive Twitter purchase and his remarkably successful Tesla business.

They write:

“EV demand is strongly correlated with higher levels of income and education, and EV adoption is highest among car buyers 35 to 45 years old. More liberal and coastal states tend to have higher demand for sedans and EVs. . . .”

Yes, there is a political bias vis-à-vis a large percentage of those people who buy EVs.

Should Musk tilt Twitter to the extreme Right, isn’t it likely that the liberal EV intenders are likely to no longer think of Tesla as an aspirational brand and opt for something else? Isn’t it possible that there would be a whole lot of Tesla blowback?

Somehow this doesn’t seem at all unimaginable.

Add in the issues related to the Saudi investment in Twitter and the Chinese influence on Tesla’s fortunes in China, and the self-proclaimed Chief Twit may find himself wishing that he would have not bought the bird when he could have continued to get bird shit for free.

What Is the Ram 1500 Revolution EV Concept?

By Gary S. Vasilash

The Ram Truck brand has announced it will unveil its Ram 1500 Revolution battery electric pickup concept at CES 2023 in Las Vegas on January 5.

“CES” used to stand for “Consumer Electronics Show.”

Now it is bigger than that.

One of the reasons it is expanded in scope in due to the auto industry which, for the past few years, has realized that attending an industry trade show full of people who are tech heat seekers is good for word of mouth, which is good for business.

Consider this: the Chevy Bolt EV was introduced on January 6, 2017 at CES. GM CEO Mary Barra made a keynote address at the event that day.

The following week in Detroit the North American International Auto Show, the venue where vehicles are ordinary unveiled, got to see the Bolt EV, too. Not a debut, of course.

What’s more, coincident with the unveiling of the Bolt EV Mary Barra and the car appeared on the cover of Wired magazine.

Vehicle OEM PR people know that writers for Car and Driver and MotorTrend have to cover vehicles like the Bolt and the Ram 1500 Revolution.

If they can get publications like Wired to cover them—that’s saying something.

A question about the Ram 1500 Revolution and CES:

Is Ram Truck positioning the vehicle as tech or a truck?

This is not to say that modern trucks don’t have a lot of tech. But it does seem that by launching it there the company is saying to the world that the truck is a marvel of advanced engineering more than this is something that someone is going to use to haul aggregate or boards or whatever.

It will most certainly have the capability to hauling that whatever and then some.

But if it can convince people who are never going to haul that this is a technically trick truck, then they may get even more market traction than they would if they introduced it at the Chicago Auto Show, an event in February where OEMs have tended to launch their trucks.

Toyota, GM, Ford; EVs, AVs and ADAS

By Gary S. Vasilash

Last week Norihiko Shirouzu of Reuters reported “Toyota is considering a reboot of its electric-car strategy to better compete in a booming market it has been slow to enter.”

Toyota’s Prius is synonymous with “hybrid.” The company has pretty much hybridized everything. It argues—or maybe that would be “argued”—that it is better to build a whole bunch of affordable hybrids than a comparatively few electric vehicles that are comparatively more expensive: according to Kelley Blue Book, the average price of an electric vehicle in the U.S. in September was $65,291. The average transaction price for vehicles overall, KBB calculated, was $48,094. Which is roughly a 27% delta, which is certainly non-trivial.

Yes, this is a Prius. (Image: Toyota)

Be that as it may, Shirouzu’s sources indicated that “Toyota’s planning had assumed demand for EVs would not take off for several decades.” Which is decidedly not the case.

So is Toyota making a pivot? That is one of the subjects discussed on this edition of “Autoline After Hours.” Joining “Autoline’s” John McElroy and me are automotive consultant/analyst Jack Keebler and long-time auto journalist, currently freelancing at Autoweek, Todd Lassa.

Other topics discussed are the Q3 earnings of both General Motors and Ford, as well as those companies positions on autonomous driving: GM continues to be bullish on the prospects for Cruise, still anticipating revenue of $1-billion from the operation by 2025; Ford is far more conservative, as it announced that Argo AI, the AV company that was owned primarily by it and Volkswagen (each had 39%), was closing. Ford going forward would focus more on Level 2+ and Level 3 ADAS. (Ford CEO Jim Farley: “It’s mission-critical for Ford to develop great and differentiated L2+ and L3 applications that at the same time make transportation even safer.”)

The conversation is wide ranging and lively. And you can see it here.