Over the last several decades, automakers have been reluctant to cede development of the few key things that define a car's character, primarily engines and transmissions.
But the move last year by Chrysler Group to outsource development of many future transmissions to ZF Friedrichshafen AG of Germany is a signal to suppliers: Some automakers facing tough new fuel economy requirements are ready to ask for help.
"A transmission in the past was still a core competence of some OEMs -- not of every, but of some," said Ludger Reckmann, ZF's North American CEO. When "they don't want to invest with their own r&d activities in those technologies, they go to the specialist."
Chrysler, which had suffered some well publicized reliability problems with in-house transmissions prior to its 2009 bankruptcy, agreed last year to purchase ZF transmissions and also to assemble ZF-designed gearboxes under a licensing deal.
As a result, versions of the automaker's flagship 2012 Chrysler 300 and Dodge Charger sedans now feature the same ZF eight-speed rear-wheel-drive transmissions used in several luxury BMW models, giving the two large domestic sedans highway ratings of 31mpg (7.6 liters per 100km).
Chrysler will begin producing licensed versions of the eight-speed transmission at its plant in Kokomo, Indiana, in the fourth quarter of 2012, Chrysler spokeswoman Jodi Tinson said. ZF, which is building a 940,000-square-foot plant in Greenville, South Carolina, also will produce the eight-speed gearbox and a new nine-speed front-wheel-drive transmission there in 2013, Reckmann said.
The relationship provides Chrysler with an immediate leap in transmission technology and fuel efficiency at a fraction of what it would cost to develop it on its own. It also provided ZF with sufficient sales to justify a factory in South Carolina.
For now, Chrysler is ZF's only North American customer, though others are looking, Reckmann said.