Tiremaker Continental AG is pushing into nontire parts of the auto business through a new subsidiary.
Martin Swoboda, head of marketing at Continental Automotive Systems in Hannover, Germany, said the new unit builds on its parent's core skills. He describes these as 'electronics, design, applications; application engineering; indoor and outdoor testing, chassis and some areas of the powertrain.'
Swoboda was interviewed by David Shaw of Automotive News Europe's sister publication, European Rubber Journal.
How will you use Continental's experience to build your new automotive systems business?
We started automotive systems four years ago, when I was head of corporate planning at Continental. We asked, 'What areas can Conti enter using as many existing products as possible?' We said, 'Look for systems which are not far from the chassis, but are not yet in mass production.'
We are focusing on new systems which will become available through the electronics revolution.
Starting something new is an advantage.
We have no one telling us something cannot be done in this way or that. We don't have people telling young engineers to put away their new ideas.
Is there a danger of Continental undermining its existing products?
Yes, but we have addressed it. With hoses and V-belts, for example, there are opportunities for systems approaches, but they will never be a complete, discrete subsystem.
Our focus is on new technologies in areas where existing systems are going to be replaced, brake-by-wire, for example. Other assemblers have the hydraulic work, but we have something new and we are quite advanced with it.
The same is true with air-spring systems. We are working on them with our partner, Mannesmann Sachs.
You have the technology to make air-spring bellows, but do you need help with the electronics and control systems?
The development of electronics is done inside Continental. We are currently working on control systems for levelling systems and for tire pressure monitoring. However, we do not want to manufacture electronic systems. We have partners for that.
Control systems are difficult to get right. Do you believe that if you succeed with the control on air springs, you can succeed with all controls on the vehicle?
We aim to build up a competence in software and electronics development for chassis systems, brakes, suspensions and the reconfiguration of those systems. We are investing in laboratories and design and development departments. We do not want to invest in production facilities.
You are not interested in simple controls?
The basic system can be designed easily. The difficulty is looking at the complete application, the special events and how a car behaves in all circumstances.
You have to look at what happens if a car stands on a hill, or brakes as it is cornering, or goes over a railway.
You then have to discuss it with the automotive industry and rewrite and adapt the software.
What about tire-pressure monitoring?
We are working on tire-pressure monitoring systems with a major manufacturer. I am not authorized to name them, but the system will be introduced at the end of 1999 and will be available for the mass market.
How many of your systems will be sold in the first two years?
I cannot say. It will start out as an option, and options usually start at the top end and work their way down. The mass market will be served by 2005 or so.
Will tire-pressure monitoring increase the use of run-flat tires?
Yes. It is not a problem to convince the customer that tire-pressure monitoring is a benefit if the price is right. We did a market survey and found that we had to offer the option for less than DM500 ($275).
We have met that target. Once pressure monitoring is established, I believe the psychological problem over replacing the fifth wheel with run-flat tires will go too.
What is the future for rubber within the auto industry?
Rubber is an excellent material. There are problems. It is heavy, expensive and is avoided where it is not needed, except in the spare wheel.
But we will still need rubber components in cars. The rubber industry will lose business in some areas, but gain in others. Air-spring systems, for example, are going to replace coil springs with rubber.