Schaeffler looks beyond ball-bearings with future urban mobility ideas

The Schaeffler Mover concept is an electric chassis that can take different bodies such as a robotaxi, shown, or a small cargo van.

Photo credit: Schaeffler
Peter Sigal is a France-based correspondent with Automotive News Europe.
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Schaeffler is looking toward the future with new products and projects that might be considered unconventional for a company whose roots lie in ball bearing production.

The German supplier's four focus areas in its 2020 strategic plan are urban mobility; environmentally friendly drivetrains; interurban transportation (trains and airplanes); and the energy chain (sustainable and conventional).

Schaeffler's business case for focusing on urban mobility is based on demographics. By 2045, six billion people are likely to be living in cities, according to the World Health Organization, an increase of 2.5 billion from today. Cities cover just 2 percent of the earth's surface, but they are home to more than 50 percent of the population, consume 75 percent of energy produced — and emit 80 percent of CO2 emissions.

"Mobility change is predominantly in the urban centers, and that's where we find the issues we have to tackle," Peter Gutzmer, Schaeffler's co-CEO and chief technology officer, said in his opening address to Schaeffler's 2018 Colloquium here in Baden-Baden, an event held every four years for customers, engineers and journalists.

Gutzmer noted that transportation networks in many urban areas had reached their limits, reducing the benefits of mobility, and that building more roads was not an answer. "There will never be the ideal 'auto city.' We have to find different concepts," he said.

Some of those concepts were among the 68 exhibits on display at the Colloquium. They included a demonstration bicycle fitted with an automatic gear shift, a smartphone app that Schaeffler calls Velodaptic, sensors and communication modules — and of course Schaeffler bearings for parts like pedals. There was also the e-board, an electric skateboard developed in Schaeffler's Singapore lab that is controlled by a joystick.

Debut concepts

Two concepts made their debut at the Colloquium. The Schaeffler Mover is a friendly-looking compact four-wheeled chassis for electric mobility. Each wheel has its own motor and steering, and different bodies can be fitted to the platform, for example a robotaxi or small cargo van. A roadworthy prototype is coming later this year.

Schaeffler also showed a cargo version of the Bio-hybrid, a lightweight four-wheel pedicycle with electric assist and weather protection that Gutzmer called a "bicycle without the disadvantages of a bicycle."

Products like the Mover, the Bio-hybrid, or bicycles and skateboards might not seem to be a blueprint for future sustainable profits for a company that in 2016 had automotive sales of $10.8 billion and ranked 19 in Automotive News Europe's Top 100 global suppliers.

Then again, they could be.

Gutzmer cited studies that show that within 10 years robotaxis will be the main growth driver in urban mobility. "This vehicle fills a significant gap in the portfolio of the auto industry," he said.

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