FRANKFURT, Germany – The mobility megatrends of sustainability, autonomy, software-defined vehicles, electrification and connectivity have many established Tier 1 suppliers struggling to keep up.
The 152-year-old German automotive supplier Continental made it clear at its first media TechShow in Germany since 2019 that it is not one of those struggling companies.
Continental showed off more than two dozen solutions for these trends to visiting reporters from 20 countries on June 15. The innovations were compelling, but also refreshingly grounded in reality, with most focused on solving pressing issues in the next few years, rather than touting futuristic happy talk aimed at Wall Street.
Continental is one of the biggest and most diversified automotive suppliers in the world, selling a wide variety of products from tires to software, to vehicle cockpits and autonomous driving systems. It highlighted its latest technologies with a variety demonstrations.
Tires are Continental’s best-known products to consumers, but its spectacular pillar-to-pillar cockpit screens and interfaces now are set to redefine all future cockpit designs and were prominently featured at the TechShow.
The event started with CEO Nikolai Setzer announcing the most environmentally friendly tire ever, with 65% renewable, recycled materials. The company is the first manufacturer in the world to put a tire with such a high proportion of sustainable materials into series production while also featuring top marks in rolling resistance, wet braking and external noise.
“Carbon-neutral mobility will not be possible without the technological expertise of suppliers like Continental,” Setzer says.
After announcing the UltraContact NXT tire will be available to tire retailers in Europe starting in July, Setzer quickly pivoted to Continental’s numerous other advanced technologies, from practical approaches to autonomous driving, liquid-cooled, plug-and-play in-car supercomputers, breathtaking cockpit displays and interior materials made from used coffee grounds.
Thankfully, the complex systems and products detailed were described well enough that journalists did not have to suspend disbelief that these technologies could be in vehicles in two to four years.
“We believe self-driving vehicles will first start to be used in areas where there is a clear cost advantage and benefit to the customer,” Setzer says. “This is precisely the case for the trucking industry, as demographic and structural changes in the labor market mean there are fewer and fewer drivers available.”
In other words, everyday consumers don’t need Level-4 autonomy in their personal cars, but specialized commercial vehicles do. The shortage of long-haul truck drivers in particular is becoming a long-term crisis that almost certainly will have to be solved by technology.
Continental is partnering with Ambarella, a semiconductor-design company, which is focused on low-power, high-definition and Ultra HD video compression, image processing; computer vision processors; and self-driving truck company Aurora Innovation, to create the first commercially scalable autonomous system for the commercial vehicle industry in the U.S., starting in 2027.
Continental also showed an intriguing low-speed autonomous system that will allow vehicles to park themselves in parking structures – using current vehicle ADAS systems for steering and braking – and even drive themselves into car haulers or ships for transport. Considering the shortage of skilled car porters for loading thousands of vehicles into ocean-going ships, and the possibility that autonomous vehicles could park themselves more closely together in ships, loading areas and assembly plant lots, makes this relatively low-tech autonomy solution look like a logistics game-changer for automakers.
The so-called Automated Parking Fusion System combines a proprietary ultrasonic sensor design with surround view technology, and an ultramodern AI-based camera. The basic version provides a clear 360-degree 3D image and supports the driver when parking and maneuvering in low speed. Continental says that, due to its attractive cost structure, this entry-level system is particularly suitable for the compact car segment. In addition, several system extensions are available, including an intelligent, active surround view system.
Journalists also got the chance to see Continental’s autonomous electric industrial robots currently working at a company plant outside Frankfurt, doing the difficult job of juggling heavy weights between forklifts and logistic employees.
The Software Defined Vehicle
Continental says it is one of the technological pioneers in the software-defined vehicle worldwide and, with its comprehensive product portfolio, enables an increasingly safe, exciting, and autonomous driving experience. In order to be able to transfer large amounts of data to and from the cloud, the company has developed powerful software for processing, managing and distributing all this data. With the Continental Automotive Edge (CAEdge) framework, the supplier is using a modular solution and, together with Amazon Web Services (AWS), is setting up a new approach for the efficient development of software for service-oriented vehicle architectures in the automotive industry.
CAEdge provides a virtual workbench with numerous options for developing, deploying, and supporting software-intensive system features. Thanks to this architecture, functions can be imported into the SDV as an over-the-air update.
In addition, Continental also offers the complete integration of functional applications. Automakers can choose from a range of solutions from Continental’s portfolio of functions.
Continental says this enables automakers to bring solutions to market faster and to develop the software-based vehicle more cost-efficiently. But a spokesperson points out that the best software is useless if it cannot interact with equally optimal hardware. And this is where the company says its high-performance computers (HPC) and Zone Control Units (ZCU) play a central role. In the vehicle, HPCs use data from sensors and control units, while the telematics unit connects the vehicle with the environment and the cloud. The ZCUs function as a communication gateway, provide intelligent power distribution and perform vehicle functions reliably.
Spectacular Screens and Head-Up Displays
Continental’s spectacular cockpit displays promise to transform vehicle cockpits by mid-decade and become the company’s most-famous consumer-facing products. The new Scenic View head-up display puts all relevant information on the lower edge of the windshield where it can be seen by the driver without having to take eyes off the road. Occupants no longer have to choose between the intuitive presentation of a HUD for the driver and the sharp image quality of a classic display for the driver and front passenger. Environmental factors such as harsh sunlight and polarizing sunglasses do not impair the readability of the pillar-to-pillar display. The technology won an innovation award at CES in January in the “Vehicle Tech and Advanced Mobility,” category.
Continental’s Curved Ultrawide display also was highlighted. It spans a vehicle’s entire width with highly functional, high-definition displays that can appear and disappear on demand. As the name suggests, the main screen is curved and at 51 in. (1.29 m) it connects both A-pillars. It also has a lot of surface area with even more functions: Besides the matrix backlighting for better picture quality and “Local Dimming” technology, one thing in particular stands out: the In2Visible control panel. The panel, positioned below the main display, introduces a camouflage feature. When not in use the control panel merges seamlessly with the instrument panel surface and is invisible. It provides a clean, minimalist design and prevents superfluous information from distracting the driver. In addition, the panel, which is placed close to the driver, provides haptic feedback for precise and safe controls.
Other noteworthy technologies introduced at Continental’s tech fest:
- World’s first automotive interior display with secure face authentication. Believe it or not, current facial recognition systems can be easily fooled by simply using a person’s headshot stolen from social media. The Driver Identification System from Continental and trinamiX uses a unique technology to recognize specific facial traits and provides fool-proof biometrical authentication with many features. A winner of a 2023 CES Innovation Award, the core of the innovation is the security system that only allows the vehicle to start after successfully authenticating the driver and it cannot be fooled easily. In a convincing – but slightly creepy – demonstration, a Continental engineer used a lifelike disembodied head to prove the system will react only to human skin, making it immune to forgery attempts such as photographs or masks. The monitoring system also increases safety while driving because it keeps an eye on the driver's attention and reacts if signs of fatigue or distraction. A bonus is the fool-proof system greatly simplifies digital payment processes when refuelling or parking. The complex technology also is seamlessly hidden in instrument cluster display and can be combined with Continental’s Curved Ultra-Wide Display.
- Ending hydraulic brakes. Continental is taking the first step to being able to eliminate hydraulic brakes. The company says hydraulics are not particularly resource-efficient due to the fluid maintenance needed, plus they are costly and – in an ideal scenario – should be avoided. The advantage for car manufacturers is that filling and bleeding the brake system no longer is necessary in production. The goal is to electromechanically actuate rear axle brakes, which previously were operated hydraulically. The ultimate goal is having both front and rear brakes actuated electromechanically and the components of the system will be packaged in individual modules.
- Better hoses for hydrogen refueling stations. In yet another example of creating practical solutions for crucial needs, Continental is using its extensive material expertise to enable the development of high-performance hose solutions for hydrogen dispensing and refueling. The water-cooled cables for high-speed battery-electric-vehicle charging stations have to be very robust in order to be safe but they also are as heavy as a fire hose and can be difficult to manage. The dispensing hoses at hydrogen refueling stations also present challenges because the hydrogen is delivered to the tank under very high pressure: 14,000 psi (700 bar). Continental has developed a new hybrid hose solution that combines a highly impermeable thermoplastic inner liner with steel reinforcement to withstand pressure. The rubber-based outer cover provides the flexibility needed for convenient insertion of the fueling nozzle into the vehicle and also shields the user from the low transport temperatures of hydrogen, which is -253° C (-423° F). In addition to this innovative hose solution, Continental's materials experts are developing the corresponding connecting components, such as seals and couplings, to ensure the efficiency and safety of the refueling process even at the particularly challenging interfaces.