ZF has been around in one form or another for well over 100 years, but that doesn’t mean the old dog can’t learn new tricks.
In fact, changing things up is a good explanation of why ZF is still around. And, according to Jörg Trampler, ZF's head of Engineering Center North America-car powertrain technology, the automotive supplier is undergoing yet another change to prepare for the coming electric era.
At the end of July, ZF announced it would merge its Car Powertrain Technology and E-Mobility divisions as part of a renewed focus on electrification. Speaking at the Center for Automotive Research’s virtual Management Briefing Seminars, Trampler says there were many reasons for the change (e.g., improvements to the balance sheet), but a big one was the people.
The change was made, Trampler says, in part to give ZF employees who work on, for example, transmissions for gas vehicles confidence that they will still have jobs in the future and their decades of experience will still be useful as the industry shifts to building more and more electric vehicles.
“We recently announced that we are merging our two driveline divisions together, the powertrain division that is responsible for everything transmission – be it manual or automatic, torque converters and so on – and the e-mobility division, which is responsible for the electric motors and converters,” Trampler says.
“We want to make this one big division. It gives us so much more flexibility to put our resources where they are needed. Also, it motivates people. Employees are asking me, will we be needed in the future? I think here we are sending our signal saying we are one big family now and the future is electrification.”
That question about the future is important because as part of the division merger, ZF will no longer develop new systems for conventional driveline technologies. Instead, the supplier will focus on developing driveline parts for long-range plug-in hybrids and battery-electric vehicles.
“There will be no more new ZF automatic transmission that is not hybrid-ready,” Trampler says.
The shift doesn’t mean ZF’s long history with traditional transmissions will be abandoned.
Work done on the fourth-generation PHEV integrated transmission, which has an integrated converter and more powerful electric motors inside a unit that’s the same exterior size as the third-gen version, was only possible because of continuous development on the component level, Trampler says.
“We are already working on our next-generation electric drives, and those will benefit from the same advancement in electric motor and inverter technology as our hybrid automatic transmissions,” he says.
“Those electric vehicle drives will be scalable from 80 kW (107 hp) to more than 200 kW (268 hp) of electric power and here we are aiming for a market entry in the year 2022.”
ZF also is working on an integrated 2-speed transmission for electric vehicles, an outlier in a world where most EVs use a single-speed transmission.
Some automakers, including Tesla during the development of the original Roadster, and Porsche with the Taycan, have looked into 2-speed transmissions for their EVs, but ZF’s project aims for broader acceptance.
A prototype vehicle with this transmission (above, left) is running around Germany now. Trampler says this sort of technology would not be possible without the merger and ZF’s renewed emphasis on pushing EV technology forward.
“The 2-speed transmission makes our electric-vehicle drive more efficient and, with that, it increases the vehicle driving range,” he says. “This is a good example of our dual strategy. We can tap into experience from different product areas and we can share the burden of development and industrialization costs between hybrid and full-electric applications.”
ZF, meanwhile, reports a net loss of €911 million ($1.06 billion) in the first half of 2020 on sales of €13.5 billion ($15.9 billion), down an adjusted 27% from year-ago. The supplier attributes the loss to the collapse in demand caused by the global COVID-19 pandemic and the auto industry’s temporary production standstill.
The supplier says it had available credit of €4.7 billion ($5.5 billion) at the end of the first half, including $1.35 billion ($1.6 billion) provided by core banks in May.
Despite the negative first-half result, ZF says it is still heading for positive adjusted earnings before interest and taxes for the full year and expects a positive adjusted free cash flow.