Special Coverage

Frankfurt Auto Show

FRANFURT – Suppliers at the international auto show here say they are winning business only if they can contribute to lowering vehicle carbon-dioxide emissions.

“In Europe, customers are demanding new innovations despite the (market) slowdown,” says Robert Georg, in charge of marketing sheet aluminum to the auto industry for Novelis Inc. “We are on more programs than ever.”

For example, BMW AG saved 49 lbs. (22 kg) on its 7-Series by using the supplier’s aluminum sheets for the inner and outer panels, and “a lot of companies are looking right now at what is possible with doors.”

The region’s sales crisis, resulting from the global recession, has slashed volumes and profitability for suppliers, and auto makers managing on a “cash conservation” basis have delayed or canceled numerous programs.

Suppliers that formerly filled whole floors at the show here with their technology this year mostly are tucked into small displays or office space.

“The only people smiling now are in electric and hybrid projects,” says Jean-Jacques Carre, director-advanced engineering for GKN Driveline, part of GKN Automotive Ltd.

Carre’s company has a contract to supply mechanical elements of a motorized rear axle that will make all-wheel-drive vehicles out of future PSA Peugeot Citroen diesel hybrids: the Citroen DS5 HYbrid4 and Peugeot 3008 HYbrid4 coming in 2011. Robert Bosch GmbH is developing the electronic parts of the system.

Carre says GKN is developing the rear-axle-motor modules with a French consortium, including Valeo SA, in an effort to cut costs and bring hybrid benefits to smaller vehicles.

French auto makers have managed to keep their alternative-energy programs funded during the current downturn. In addition to the diesel hybrids, this includes PSA’s high-volume micro-hybrid stop/start systems and Renualt SA’s electric vehicles.

Renault and battery/infrastructure provider Better Place of California expect to sell 100,000 4-door Fluence electric cars in Denmark and Israel between 2011 and 2016.

“We’re going into series production on the next-generation start/stop with integrated electronics,” says Martin Haub, vice-president-engineering for Valeo SA.

Valeo also has developed a belt-driven starter system going into production, and it will introduce supercapacitors to the industry this year that will recapture energy from braking and use it to restart the vehicle engine.

Combining the start/stop system with the supercapacitor technology will bring an 8%-10% fuel savings, Haub says.

TRW Automotive Holdings Corp. has been using its research money to develop versions of its safety systems that will work in cars with no internal combustion engine, and those programs aimed at green cars are selling, says Peter Lake, executive vice president-sales and business development.

“We are working on how to future-proof our product line, so we can provide engine-independent solutions,” he says.

Lake says all projections for the penetration of hybrid and electric powertrains in the future likely will be wrong. But whether they are high or low, his company must be ready to provide components.

TRW is working in particular on electric braking and steering, as well as reducing the mass of all its products. At the show, the company is introducing a lighter-weight passenger airbag.

Honda Motor Co. Ltd. and Toyota Motor Corp. in Japan opened the modern electrification era with their hybrids, but Europe is the leader in battery-electric vehicles.

PSA built nearly 10,000 EVs from 1998 to 2003, and it continues to lease about 3,000 of these. Renault clearly wants to be the global volume leader.

In North America, says Lake, “I think we’ve got it now.”

The fuel crisis a year ago, the bankruptcies of the former General Motors Corp. and Chrysler LLC, and the new push from the Obama Admin. for improved fuel efficiency all have made a difference, he says. “There is a determination to try to have the U.S. in the forefront.”

Novelis’ Georg agrees, noting Detroit auto makers seem to have a new outlook toward the benefits of new technology, even if it is more expensive, referring to GM’s decision several months ago to emphasize weight reduction.

When it comes to vehicles with internal-combustion powertrains that make up the lion’s share of the industy, suppliers can only follow the fortunes of their customers.

Now that many government-scrappage incentives in Europe are ending, “We are getting very mixed signals, depending on the market,” as to what will happen next, Valeo’s Haub says.

“We are not deeply pessimistic. We are adjusting to lower volumes and hoping for higher ones.”