DETROIT – German auto supplier Continental still may be best known as a producer of traditional auto parts such as tires and brakes, but it made its intention to become a major player in autonomous vehicles clear last month by poaching a top Google executive to run a new business unit headquartered in Silicon Valley.

Named Continental Intelligent Transportation Systems, the unit will be headed by Seval Oz, an expert in vehicle networking and automation who was working on Google’s self-driving car project.

“Our mission is to dramatically improve mobility and safety by forging strong partnerships in both the tech and automotive realm,” Oz says.

Continental officials are reluctant to comment on the new unit’s financial targets, but Ralf Lenninger, senior vice president-system development, innovation and strategy for the Interior Division of Continental says the supplier’s business units typically are responsible for $1 billion to $3 billion in revenue. 

Despite its reputation as a traditional supplier, Continental has been deeply involved with advanced electronic safety and infotainment systems for more than a decade.

It already provides electronic systems that can guide a car down the highway for a few seconds and stop it automatically if necessary. The supplier sees Internet connectivity as a means of enhancing the value of many of the systems and components it already offers.

“Based on core products within the car, such as safety systems and comfort electronic systems, we’re very much convinced that by bringing both technologies together you can gain more new customer experiences, more new business cases,” Lenninger tells reporters at the ITS World Congress here.

Networked vehicles that can communicate with each other and link with infrastructures open up a new range of possibilities for user functions that will make driving safer, more comfortable and environmentally friendly, the supplier says. Such applications include using data from the infrastructure or the cloud platform to inform the driver about dangers or obstacles along the route as well as other inputs such as travel, fleet and traffic management.

Even activities such as windshield-wiper operation could yield data on local rain patterns, a Continental executive says.

The new business unit has been in the works for two years, Lenninger says. It started with Continental signing collaboration agreements with key players to build core competencies: Cisco for secure connectivity, IBM for data collection and Nokia for mapping capabilities.

Continental is continuing to form non-traditional relationships with new business partners, Lenninger says.

Oz will be responsible for all new business and activities connected with Continental’s intelligent transportation business worldwide. She says she left Google for the comparatively slow-moving automotive world because she sees the industry on the brink of major change.

“It’s not just about the vehicle in automotive,” she says. “It’s sort of the perfect storm of data, communications and mobility and trying to find an ecosystem that will take us all to the next generation,” she says. “There is no reason we should be sitting in traffic. There is no reason we should be driving in traffic.”

dwinter@wardsauto.com