DETROIT – The Schaeffler Group, a big name in automotive engineering, is moving ahead with a big strategic vision that includes automated driving and various forms of electrification.

At last month’s North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Schaeffler displayed two concept vehicles, several hybrid modules and a new electronically controlled clutch system developed for Ford for its manual-drive cars in the European market.

In the fields of autonomous and connected driving, Schaeffler has announced research partnerships with IBM, Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Michigan, Apple, Google and others. It is conducting similar research in Europe with partners including Compact Dynamics and Semicron International.

WardsAuto interviewed Peter Gutzmer, Schaeffler’s deputy CEO and chief technology officer, at the auto show. Excerpts follow:

WardsAuto: Is autonomous driving part of Schaeffler's strategic plan moving forward?

Gutzmer: The auto industry will change considerably in the coming years in three major areas. One will be electrification of the powertrain, which we will see more and more; two, connectivity or “car-to-car” and “car-to-infrastructure” communications; and three, autonomous or automated driving. We are quite sure that these businesses are coming and are planning accordingly.

WardsAuto: What timeframe do you envision for autonomous driving?

Gutzmer: We see a stepwise advance into autonomous cars, fleet cars, city cars, “'robo-taxis” and the like. Why? These vehicles can afford the additional cost.

Concurrently, we see a young society that understands the politics and usage of social networks and various IT systems, and they can influence and change the usage of cars. For this reason, we think that autonomous driving will become a reality in cities like Singapore, Paris and Detroit, where pilot programs are currently being implemented.

WardsAuto: In this context, will we see the standardization of lane-departure and other assistive-safety technologies?

Gutzmer: Surely some of these systems will be installed as standard features in cars as add-ons once they become affordable. This will happen. But there is another reason that it will happen first in fleets, and that is because of insurance and legal issues.

WardsAuto: When you discuss fleets, do you include buses?

Gutzmer: Yes. There will be all kinds of fleets offering on-demand services.

WardsAuto: When will these systems be introduced – by 2030?

Gutzmer: If we resolve the legal and security issues, I think they will start around 2025 but won’t become widely adopted until after 2030.

WardsAuto: Concerning lane-departure and assistive-safety technologies, Toyota’s idea was to introduce these systems to proliferate throughout its lineup, thus bringing down costs through scale, to save lives. Do you agree?

Gutzmer: Liability remains a big issue. We have more than 1 million people dying every year in traffic accidents. So yes, I agree. But we can’t forget that most accidents are the result of human failure. Our whole legal structure is based on the assumption of the intelligence of human beings. Most advanced software is still not on a level with human beings.

WardsAuto: So Schaeffler and the industry, in general, will pursue a more safety “assist” approach?

Gutzmer: For the time being, which is why we think these technologies will be introduced stepwise into standard cars. We don’t need to go all the way to Level 5 (self-driving).

WardsAuto: We’ve now got the Waymos (founded by Google), Apples and Ubers competing along with the OEMs and their suppliers. Schaeffler is somewhere in between. Exactly what is Schaeffler’s role?

Gutzmer: We’re integrators. We need to be the integration partner between the electronics and software industries and the OEMs. That is the basic idea.

WardsAuto: Then who has the advantage? The OEM? Or do you see companies like Waymo/Google really becoming disrupters?

Gutzmer: Disrupters in the sense of building cars? No. But in terms of introducing technologies that can handle data and integrate sensing technologies? Yes. But not the car as a package. And that is where we come into play.

In the future, we will work together with these industries. We will triangulate with them as the industry moves increasingly into autonomous driving. But the reality is that we still don’t know whether the customer will be willing to pay for this additional value.

WardsAuto: Switching to powertrains, Schaeffler is developing 48V hybrid systems. What is the current status of your technology and applications?

Gutzmer: Customers expect improvements in fuel economy. But at present, if we try to change from a conventional powertrain to one that is battery powered – which is more expensive, of course – customers have been hesitant to pay. They would love to (make the switch), but not at a higher cost. Nevertheless, it will happen eventually.

There is clear agreement among global leaders, most at least, that the industry must move in this direction to deal with global warming. Forty-eight volt is a low-cost approach to recover electricity during braking.

WardsAuto: What trends do you see?

Gutzmer: We see two. We see 48V improving the efficiency of conventional powertrains. We can gain up to 20% improvements depending on the drive cycle. In urban drive cycles, gains will be more. In highway driving, less.

Next, we expect cities not to allow emission-creating driving in certain areas. Emission-free driving will be required in those areas. This creates opportunities for higher-power electric drivetrains including either PHEVs (plug-in hybrids) and full hybrids. We believe that at least a 50-km or 30-mile electric range is needed.

In the next 10 years, we believe that up to 30% of new cars will be hybrids, ranging from 48V to plug-in types. The majority will be 48V.

WardsAuto: What about EVs?

Gutzmer: We expect 15% market penetration globally (in the) same timeframe. China might be more. In the U.S., we'll see more hybrids and fewer EVs. In Europe, it will be in the 15% range.

(In a formal presentation at the Detroit show, Schaeffler predicted hybrids and EVs would account for 70% of global vehicle production by 2030.)

WardsAuto: What is the outlook for battery costs coming down?

Gutzmer: There are three major realities we must live with. The first is cost, which will hinder the introduction of electric cars. We believe that the batteries will get to half the current price in the next 10 years and that performance, which means density, will increase by 50%. So there is a huge improvement coming – €200 ($210 per kWh) to less than €100 ($105) and 170 wh/kg of power to 250-350 wh/kg for EVs.

For electric cars, people need to have a certain range of driving. Even if they don't drive more than 70 miles (112 km) a day, they need capacity for 300 to 400 miles (480 to 640 km). To sum up, battery efficiency is improving while cost is going down.

The third issue is where to charge the battery. These issues will be resolved within the next 10 years, supported by governments and legislation, by usage of the technologies in fleets and by the mindset of the younger generation.

All of this is what makes me conclude that the potential for electric cars is 15% of the market.

WardsAuto: Might magnetic rail technology be introduced?

Gutzmer: No. It’s too expensive and inefficient. We think that charging will be static.

WardsAuto: Switching to the current debate about fuel-cell vehicles and EVs and which offers greater potential, what is Schaeffler’s view?

Gutzmer: From a cost and efficiency point of view, from a total lifetime of the vehicle point of view, from production up to recycling, batteries are more efficient at this time. We will see fuel-cell vehicles for special applications, in the truck sector for instance. But for the moment, they are costly in part because they require a different infrastructure.

So we see fuel cells coming up behind battery-electric.