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Nobody asked me, but . . .

A few years ago, if you asked a car guy to respond with the first word that came to mind when I mentioned Continental, the answer would have been tires.  And the next five words would have been either Conti Contac performance summer tires or Conti Blizzak performance winter tires.

But no longer is the Germany-based Continental synonymous just with tires.  Slowly, and somewhat under the radar screen, Continental has been reinventing itself, not a bad thing in a fast changing automotive environment.  Today Continental is still renowned for its tires, but for those automotive folks who are hardwired into the “parts” sides of the business, Continental has emerged as the world’s third largest automotive supplier company behind Bosch and Magna.  In some segments of the fast food business parts is parts, but not in the automotive business.   Suppliers are the lifeblood of the industry.  Today, every automotive manufacturer—Ford, Toyota, Mercedes-Benz, you name it—is highly dependent upon suppliers for much of the hard and software in every one of its vehicles.  Literally hundreds of suppliers, some with well known names such as Lear, Johnson Controls, Bosch and Delphi, and unknowns (except for auto industry insiders making their living designing, engineering, costing and manufacturing vehicles) such as NTN (axle bearings), Brose (electric seat adjustment), and Rehau (rear spoiler) work closely with their auto company partners, helping them create many of the literally hundreds of primary and subsystems required in every vehicle: airbags, brakes, gauge clusters, tires, seats, shock absorbers, steering wheels, transmissions, ECMS . . . the list is endless.  No auto company possesses all of the internal capabilities to design, engineer develop, test and manufacture an automobile today.  Thus the need for specialists such as Continental.

Every couple of years Continental assembles all of its engineering and component capabilities into a technical road show and travels around the country to demo its technologies to the various automakers doing business in the US.  This time around Continental invited a few key auto media to the former El Toro marine base in Irvine, California (currently DBA the Great Park) for a show and drive of a variety of its latest tech toys.

Continental’s non-tire businesses cover three key areas: Powertrain, Interior, and Chassis & Safety.  To highlight the significant improvements in fuel economy, emissions and low-speed torque made possible by direct gas injection (DGI) into the cylinder compared to more conventional port fuel injections systems, Continental provided 2009 and 2011 Hyundai Sonatas, both with 2.4-liter 4-cylinder engines, for evaluation.   No contest.  The 2011 Sonata’s new-gen DGI motor walks away from the ’09 version in every way imaginable—smoothness, flexibility, low-end torque, acceleration—all the while providing higher fuel economy and lower emissions.

Continental’s innovative double-clutch transmission (DCT) technology has been in production since 2003.  But it bears repeating: You can’t beat a DCT for the precision, speed and smoothness of its up and down shifting.  And this from a guy who has a manual gear shift lever permanently affixed to his right arm (Note: It, the lever not the arm, is surgically removed and reattached to my left arm for travels to Japan, England and other RHD countries).  The DCT design means that the next higher or lower gear is pre-selected and always waiting for your next move.  It also means every gear change occurs without the interruption in power flow that accompanies a conventional automatic’s up- and downshifting.  This results in reduced emissions and higher mpg.  Nice.  We demoed this gearbox in a 2010 Audi TT.

Tire pressure monitoring system

Tire pressure monitoring system

Tire Pressure Monitoring Systems are designed to monitor the air pressure inside a tire and are standard on all cars and light duty (under 10,000 lb) trucks produced after September 1, 2007.  Many of these systems use sensors mounted on a standard tire valve.

Continental’s better idea is an innovative sensor that is placed inside a rubber “pocket” that is glued to the tread on the inside of the tire.  Advantages include easier balancing and lower cost, according to Conti.  But the Continental sensors also measure tread temperature and tire loading, factors that are critical to safe driving.  I also sense some potential interest from racers.

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If you are driving a Hyundai Genesis or a variety of Mercedes-Benz, Cadillac and other models, you are constantly looking at Continental Interior technologies.  Working with these various vehicle manufacturers, Continental develops leading-edge instrument clusters, secondary displays, head-up displays, climate controls, etc.  Continental is also heavily involved in auto infotainment and connectivity with auto and navigation systems, and embedded telematics that make possible in-car reception and transmission of information.

AutoLinQ is Continental’s solution for keeping motorists and their passengers in touch with the world via the internet.  Featuring an open architecture and the potential for using Google’s Android Market Place and other internet services, AutoLinQ allows the safe use of internet applications, services and personalized software.  We were shown a prototype enhanced version of AutoLinQ, but mum’s the word until early June.  So check back next month for details.

Blind Spot Detection (BLS)

Blind Spot Detection (BLS)

Lane Departure Warning (LDW)

Lane Departure Warning (LDW)

Several of Continental’s key technologies are in the areas of active and passive safety, which are part of Continental’s Chassis & Safety division.  Some of these systems are already in production and they form the core of Continental’s Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS).  Safety systems such as Advanced Cruise Control, Lane Departure Warning, Blind Spot Detection and Closing Velocity Sensors will play key roles in future vehicles according to Continental engineers.

In the space of a couple of hours I drove technologies that will define your “all-seeing” car of tomorrow.  And several of these technologies are already in production.  I experienced radar-based Blind Spot Detection (BSD) in a Mazda CX-9. Warning is provided via an illuminated icon in the side mirror if the turn signal indicator is off.  If the turn signal is on, the warning escalates to an audible alert.  Continental’s BSD technology is currently available on the Mazda CX-9, CX-7 and Mazda6.

According to Auto TECHCAST 2009, an annual consumer study conducted by Harris Interactive, among those respondents who evaluated Blind Spot Detection, one in 10 reported that they had experienced a “blind spot” accident.  One of the tradeoffs to today’s safer cars has been reduced outward vision, particularly to the sides and the rear, and technologies such as BSD and rear cameras will play increasingly important roles in the future.

Low Speed City Safety

Again referencing the AutoTECHCAST study of 2009, almost 20 percent of those who evaluated collision mitigation in the study say they experience a panic stop – where one slams on the brakes to avoid an accident – at least once a month. In fact, NHTSA states that 28 percent of all crashes are rear-end.

Hello, City Safety, a low-speed (below 20 mph) collision avoidance system using infrared sensors to measure speed and distance to the vehicle in front of you.  It automatically applies the brakes to bring the car to a complete stop if the driver is distracted.  In most cases a collision is avoided.  At worst, the severity of the collision is greatly diminished.

I drove City Safety in a production 2010 Volvo XC60.  Then I jumped into a Mercedes E350 equipped with radar-based Active Cruise Control (ACC).  This system features totally autonomous high-speed collision-avoiding braking.  Look, ma, no feet on the brake pedal, even at 70 mph!  It also provides gap analysis, allowing the Mercedes driver to automatically maintain a desired time gap between his M-B and the vehicle in front.  The car will automatically speed up or slow down to maintain the preset time spacing.  The Merc also featured Lane Departure Warning (LDW), a camera-based system that alerts the driver via steering wheel vibration when he has wandered outside the lane marker stripes.

LDW is currently available on various Audi, VW, BMW and Mercedes-Benz models in the US and Volvo Trucks in Europe.

ACC systems from Continental are offered on the Mercedes-Benz S-Class, E-Class, M-Class and R-Class; Cadillac DTS and STS; Hyundai Genesis and Equus (Korea only); and on commercial vehicles from Actros, Freightliner and IVECO.

The next generation of Conti ACC will include a Stop & Go function where it will be possible for the car to follow the traffic even during traffic holdups.  The system will also be able to detect if the vehicle in front begins to move again and will notify the driver via an audible signal.

Note to self:  Remind WheelsTV viewers that ACC will not provide nursing for newborns or automatic shaving capabilities.

Mix active safety systems such as ESC, ABS, ACC, LDW and BSD, with passive airbag and seat belt systems and vehicle networking and stir gently.  Voila.  ContiGuard: a comprehensive safety system that integrates all active and passive safety functions to help prevent accidents from happening and protect vehicle occupants when they do.  For example, if an accident is probable, the system pre-fills the brakes, tightens seat belts, closes windows and the sunroof, and prepares the airbags for optimal deployment.  Future versions will incorporate eCall, an automatic emergency call that indicates the location and provides a time stamp and analysis of the damage.

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Among the cars Continental had assembled at El Toro was one toy, a Porsche Panamera.  It was equipped with a 4-corner electronic air suspension system provided by Continental.  The air volume inside the air springs can be set either high or low via a switch on the console.  Less air: firmer ride.  More air: softer ride.  Additional ride comfort or added performance and cornering stability.  Your choice.  And, yes, despite the two tons of road hugging mass and four doors, it still feels like a Porsche . . . perhaps a bit like a really torquey 928.  You can also lower the ride height for improved aero and top speed and better fuel economy or raise it for your next running of the Baja 1000.

Air suspension system

Air suspension system

The following are some salient and sobering comments on highway safety, and I’m quoting Continental here:

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), 44 percent of all crashes are caused by driver recognition errors, with another 23 percent caused by decision errors. Continental’s ADAS systems are designed to assist drivers by helping them anticipate and avoid crash situations.

Furthermore, with increased mandates by government agencies around the world looking to reduce the number of traffic-related fatalities, ADAS will be an integral part of future vehicles.

Over 90 percent of the six-million-plus accidents per year in the United States are caused by driver errors . . .

NHTSA recently mandated electronic stability control for automobiles and light trucks by 2012. Europe has issued a similar mandate and timeframe.

In 2011, NHTSA will implement a new ratings program that will list the presence of selected advanced technologies, including electronic stability control (ESC), lane departure warning (LDW) and forward collision warning.

Continental engineers pioneered some of today’s active safety systems, such as Anti-lock Brakes (ABS) and Electronic Stability Control (ESC).  Continental is also on the leading edge of technologies that will eventually evolve into the car that thinks and drives for you.  I will welcome the reduction in injuries, fatalities and property damage that will result.  But I’m not so sure I will welcome HAL unless he can promise me seamless, four wheels down, 1-hour drives from Los Angeles to San Francisco.

http://www.conti-online.com/generator/www/de/en/continental/automotive/general/home/index_en.html

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