GRAY COURT, SC – If ZF has its way, the majority of American drivers will consider anything less than an 8-speed gearbox a relic of the past.

The German manufacturer is embarking on an ambitious plan to saturate the market with 8- and 9-speed transmissions, the latter of which debuts in two key vehicles for separate auto makers: Jaguar Land Rover’s Range Rover Evoque and Chrysler’s Jeep Cherokee SUV, a global vehicle that has suffered some production setbacks.

Eight-speed proliferation already has taken hold in the industry in some Chrysler, Audi, BMW, Jaguar and Land Rover models. The ZF unit is designed for longitudinal drivetrains and can provide 11% fuel savings, the supplier says. A hybridized version of the 8-speed transmission can provide 25% fuel savings over a non-hybridized gearbox.

As American drivers lean toward fully automatic, front-wheel-drive models, however, the ZF-designed 9-speed will find its place in those applications, CEO Stefan Sommer tells WardsAuto during a plant tour and media drive at ZF’s 950,000-sq.-ft. (88,258-sq.-m) facility here.

“I see the 9-speed technology contributing a lot to fuel efficiency and driving and ride comfort,” Sommer says.

“I see potential applications in all cars with the front-transverse transmission, and we have designed this transmission in a way for size and weight and functionality that it almost fits in every car. We will have bigger growth, and we will have a lot of new applications here in the U.S. in the future.”

ZF has committed $600 million to this facility, its largest single investment outside of its German headquarters in Friedrichshafen. The manufacturer has targeted annual production of 400,000 8-speeds and 800,000 9-speeds, the only two gearboxes to be assembled here.

The 9-speed program began about five years ago, Sommer says, and went into “serious development” three years ago.

The transmission uses dog clutches rather than traditional clutches to reduce drag, and the spread and steps of the gear ratios contribute to fuel efficiency.

Smaller gearboxes will remain available, but “9-speeds will more or less dominate the market in the future,” Sommer says.

European drivers prefer double-clutch gearboxes, Sommer says, so 9-speed transmission growth in that market is not a priority for the manufacturer. ZF will bank on the gearboxes, as well as other fuel-saving, ride-enhancing technologies displayed here to increase its foothold in the U.S. market.

Engineers estimate about 30 million vehicles on the road use ZF technology.

That number could grow as the supplier works with auto makers to target more discerning buyers.

Continuous damping control, demonstrated here on a Buick Regal GS, uses individually controlled shocks for each wheel and calculates necessary damping forces in real driving time. Sensors in the system determine characteristic values in acceleration, and the system also reduces roll, pitch, vertical motion and braking distances.

Previously a technology employed in upper-class vehicles, “it’s moving down to the midsize classes,” one ZF engineer says. “We’re always making improvements. We’re working on the next generation of (CDC).”

ZF’s expertise extends beyond transmissions. ZF Lenksysteme, a 50/50 joint venture with Bosch, supplies electric power steering for the Dodge Dart compact, Ford Fusion midsize sedan and Porsche Cayman S sports car, among other models.

Fast becoming common in new-vehicle programs, EPS reduces weight, eliminates hydraulics and consumes energy only when the steering wheel is turned.

With 12,700 employees in eight countries, ZF Lenksysteme continues improving its Servoletric steering system.

“You can now start to manage the effort, progression and steering – and that just helps the stability,” a ZF engineer tells reporters. “EPS used to be numb, disconnected. We’ve managed to reduce that feeling of disconnection.”

ZF Lenksysteme has developed three EPS systems capable of networking with other technologies, such as parking assistance and electronic stability control.

One approach with EPS is to employ an input pinion on the driver’s side and a second pinion so that the rack has “essentially two sets of teeth,” a ZF engineer says. “We are the market leader on that technology. We’re seeing some followers on that road.”

afoley@wardsauto.com