The Expanding Growth of the Chinese Auto Industry Examined

By Gary S. Vasilash

Tu Le grew up in metro Detroit. He made his way out to Silicon Valley, where he lived and worked. Then made a move to Beijing.

He recalls that when in China he recognized that there was a massive shift going on in the auto industry, one largely predicated on the digitalization borne of on-board electronics. Then there was the electrification of the powertrain.

This led him to found a consulting firm, Sino Auto Insights, which has a perspective on what’s going on in the industry—which he refers to as the “mobility industry”—from the perspectives he’s gained from living in Detroit, working in Silicon Valley, then spending serious time in China.

Tu thinks that one of the things that is happening that is going to have profound effects on the traditional OEMs—be they based in the U.S., Europe or Japan—is that Chinese companies are working at a clock speed that can make efforts undertaken by those traditional seem to be in slow motion.

The technology transition is not in the least bit minor.

What’s more, not only is the competitiveness of Western companies operating in China waning, but Chinese OEMs are now selling their vehicles—which have, he says, surprising levels of tech and capability—in markets around the world, which puts pressure on OEMs in their home markets.

And while this hasn’t happened in a notable way in the U.S., it is a matter of when, not if, Tu says.

On this edition of “Autoline After Hours” John McElroy, Lindsay Brooke of SAE International and I talk with Tu about these developments.

Not only is the growth and expansion of the Chinese auto industry a technology story, but given the tensions that are increasing between the U.S. and China (think only of the recent spate of balloons), there is a political aspect to this, as well.

And you can see the show here.

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.

Gentex: Mirrors and Much, Much More

That rear-view mirror you have in your vehicle? It was probably made by Gentex Corp., a company on the west side of Michigan that completely dominates the market

And if you have a Homelink button that is fitted within the housing of that mirror (or elsewhere, for that matter), know that Homelink is a Gentex development.

If you’ve been in a Cadillac CT6 and saw that the rear-view mirror was not just a reflective surface but through activation was transformed into a video monitor showing what is behind the car even if there happens to be members of an NBA team sitting in the backseat and consequently obstructing the view, know that that was a Gentex development.

Gentex mirror that is both a typical reflective type as well as a video screen fed by a back-mounted camera. (Image: Gentex)

The company, which started out as a provider of smoke detectors, has become an instrumental part of safe vehicle operation (if you’ve ever tried to drive without your mirrors, you know that it is a dodgy situation—at best).

One of the things that’s interesting about Gentex is that while it has expertise in glass processing (no surpsie), it has extended its range to accommodate capabilities in electronics and microelectronics, software, chemistry, sensors and more.

This, explains Neil Boehm, chief technology officer, is driving the company to develop things that go well beyond what might be expected.

For example, imagine when there are shared autonomous vehicles. Nowadays, although there is a reduced number of people who smoke (and even vaping has taken a bit of a downward turn), let’s say that there is someone in an AV—one that you might be the next in line to get—who lights up a stogie. Boehm says that they’ve taken their knowhow in the smoke detector arena and have developed a system that can be embedded in the HVAC system: Smoke is detected and—remember, there’s that electronics capability (that goes well beyond Homelink)–a message is automatically sent to the AV service provider, which then knows it may have to bring that vehicle back to the depot. And another message—possibility along with the notification of a fine—can be sent to the phone of the cigar smoker.

Boehm talks about these and other developments (e.g., electrochromatic windows; V2I toll and gas pump paying technology; nanofibers that can detect explosives [think of an AV being used as a mobile bomb—an unfortunate thing to have to consider]) on this edition of “Autoline After Hours” with “Autoline’s” John McElroy, Lindsay Brooke, editor-in-chief at SAE International, and me. Gentex is obviously a company that is leveraging its people’s imaginations as well as the developed technologies.

McElroy, Brooke and I also talk about an array of other subjects, including Microsoft’s partnership with General Motors on the Cruise AV program, whether Apple is going to get into the automobile business and what company might manufacture the vehicle, and the implications of the microchip shortage on the auto industry, which has led to the stoppage of production at plants the world over, and something that may have implications going forward for the auto industry.

And you can see the show here. —gsv