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09 July 2017

21 Summer Tech Treasures: Speakerless Audio, Electrified Diesel, and More

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The biennial Frankfurt Motor Show happens this September, and the German tier-1 suppliers will all be setting up displays there. But because they know their news will be drowned out by the automakers’ shiny pretty rolling stock, Continental and ZF both staged product launch events in June to show off the “better mousetraps” they’ve dreamed up to help their OE customers achieve their CO2 reduction, safety, and comfort/convenience goals over the next few years. (Bosch will do the same in a few weeks, so watch this space.) We’ve also rolled in a few other miscellaneous tech treasures that popped up this month.


Continental AllCharge

Most electrified vehicles that you plug in include an onboard charger to condition the AC wall electricity to DC and/or to alter the DC-fast-charge electricity to battery voltage. But when you’re driving and you brake or slow down, the motor recharges the battery without using that charger. The regenerated electricity goes through the drivetrain’s own power electronics. Continental reckons that by simply making the drivetrain’s power inverter circuitry a bit more robust and altering it a bit and by using the inductive nature of the motor’s stationary stator windings to filter out “dirty electricity” (from nearby fluorescent bulbs, dimmer switches, etc.), the existing powertrain could handle the AC wall-charging duties without the cost and weight of an onboard charger. Adding a DC/DC booster further allows the car to utilize DC fast-charge stations operating at between 400 and 800 volts. Being able to accept the highest available charging rate can cut charging time by up to 10 percent or more. The present maximum charging rate is 150 kW at a handful of prototype charging stations, but 800-volt 350-kW chargers are forecast for the future, and charging at that rate could add 90 miles of range in 5 minutes. The DC/DC booster provides a further benefit. Today’s EVs typically operate only at battery voltage, but during hard acceleration, upping voltage could improve efficiency. Similarly, when the battery state of charge runs low, its operating voltage generally drops, which can reduce available power output. Using the DC/DC booster to step the voltage back up could preserve power output levels during the last miles of range. The cost of some internal bits and pieces (like silicon-carbide diodes) is higher, but overall system cost should undercut EVs with high-power onboard chargers, and manufacturers could offer the DC/DC booster as an optional upgrade. A final bonus: Because power flows easily in both directions, adding a household plug lets your EV power your campsite or critical appliances during a blackout.


Continental New Wheel Concept

The BMW i3’s crazy tall skinny wheels and tires help lower rolling resistance, but tall tires like that increase the torque required of a caliper grabbing the outside of a traditional hub-mounted brake disc. So Continental proposes increasing the caliper’s leverage by moving the disc to the outside of the wheel and having the caliper grab it from the inside. Here’s how it works. The wheel features an inner “star” that bolts to the hub as usual and will seldom need to be unbolted. The brake disc mounts to this while the much lighter smaller caliper mounts more directly to the knuckle without the need to be cantilevered out over the disc. This eliminates the likelihood of flexing that can cause brake noise. The tire mounts to the outer rim of the wheel, which unbolts from the star for tire servicing. The disc is made of an aluminum alloy that won’t corrode and should not wear in normal use, virtually eliminating the need for periodic replacement. Overall weight savings is a claimed 4.4 pounds per corner. Continental expects the tall, skinny tire/wheel concept will become increasingly popular as the fleet transitions to electrification and autonomy.


Continental Speakerless Audio

Continental doesn’t have much audio experience, but it’s done plenty of work combatting noise, vibration, and harshness, which has taught the company a thing or two about generating vibration. As Honda did by transforming the Ridgeline pickup bed into a speaker array, Continental removed all the Burmester speakers from a Mercedes-Benz E-Class and replaced them with eight vibration drivers attached directly to the stock A-pillars, dash cover, headliner, and front seatback panels. High treble frequencies are mostly generated by the A-pillars, deeper bass notes come primarily from the large headliner, and the dash and seatback panels fill the mid-range. The fidelity sounded nearly Burmester rich and crisp, providing reasonable surround sound with vocals coming from the front. By replacing 10 to 20 speakers, mass drops from a typical 30 pounds to 2 pounds while the packaging volume drops from a cubic foot or more to just 0.04 cubic ft. The system can easily be priced and scaled to suit small economy cars or large luxury SUVs (which need the weight savings the most). No production plans were announced, but it’s too compelling a technology not to find a taker soon.


ZF mSTARS Electrified Rear Axle

Lots of companies have active “Vision Zero” programs aimed at zero deaths/injuries, zero emissions, or both. ZF’s new modular Semi-Trailing Arm Rear Suspension (mSTARS) delivers a two-fer. At its heart is an ultra-compact, simplified suspension design consisting of a lower semitrailing arm with integral vertical link, an upper lateral link, and a toe-control link. By itself it is a minor packaging miracle that fits under any compact or midsize car freeing up additional cargo space. That saved space can be filled by a similarly compact 201-hp electric motor, a single-speed two-stage direct-drive transaxle, and a differential to provide zero emissions or e-AWD. But wait, there’s more free space behind the motor to accommodate ZF’s AKC active rear axle steering system to improve agility, stability, and of course safety.


Continental Super Clean Electrified Diesel

Just as the world seems to be souring on diesel engines due to real-world emissions challenges, Continental is mounting a late rallying cry for the technology with its Super Clean Electrified Diesel. As the name suggests, there’s a 48-volt 20-hp belt-alternator/starter mild hybrid system powered by a small 500-Whr lithium-ion battery. The Euro 6-compliant stock engine features Continental’s PCRs5 piezo common rail injection system. This operates with maximum injection pressures of 36,250 psi and the ability to perform multiple closely spaced and precisely metered injections per cycle. One of these tiny injections happens after combustion, allowing it to ignite when it reaches the catalyst, thereby accelerating catalyst warm-up. There’s also an electric catalyst (see below). So between vastly quicker catalyst light-off and the electric torque helping reduce NOx spikes when accelerating, the test vehicle reportedly cuts nitrogen oxide emissions by more than 60 percent on official tests. That means that in real-world testing at widely varying temperatures, NOx emissions stay well below the legal limits. Cake icing: CO2 emissions are also said to drop by 4 percent. Too little, too late?


Continental EMICAT

Once you have 48-volt mild-hybrid gear onboard, lots of other equipment can make good use of that power. Continental’s 48-volt 3.3-kW EMICAT heated catalyst can take exhaust temperatures from 0-600 C in as little as 30-40 seconds, which can permit a reduction in the amount of precious metals required in some cats. It can help reduce fuel consumption by 3-4 percent by reducing the need to inject extra fuel to heat up the catalyst and by increasing the amount of time the vehicle can spend coasting or at a stop with the engine off. This system is in production on some Volvo diesel SUVs.


Continental Cruising Chauffeur

This electronic chauffeur uses a forward-looking camera, long-range front radar, LiDAR, and short-range side radar units, and high-resolution maps against which all these images are checked. The real magic happens in a central control unit known as the Assisted & Automated Driving Control Unit (ADCU). The system we experienced included an iDrive-like controller that the driver can use to request a lane-change and to raise or lower the set speed, but manufacturers could choose to handle such tasks some other way. The prototype car also featured an LED light array at the base of the windshield that appears white during standby mode, blue when “chauffeuring,” and red when there’s a problem requiring the driver to resume control. The system aims to provide 15-20 seconds warning before the driver needs to resume control (as when preparing to exit or when weather conditions are worsening). If the driver doesn’t take control, the car pulls to the shoulder and flashes the hazard lights.


Continental 3D High Resolution 3D Flash LiDAR

To date, most prototype autonomous cars have featured spinning LiDAR detectors sprouting from their roofs, tasked with generating a 360-degree 3-D map of the vehicle’s surroundings. Those things are way too expensive and probably not robust enough for widespread adoption, but solid-state LiDAR units are proving to be much more robust and affordable. Continental is preparing a product line spanning range distances and fields of view varying from roughly 200 meters at 30 degrees wide to 40 or 60 meters at 120 degrees wide. The “flash LiDAR” concept sends and receives discrete bursts of laser light, leveraging tech has been deployed in various space programs. More units might be needed to provide full 360-degree mapping, but they’ll all be way more affordable. Series production is scheduled to start in 2020.


Continental Sensor Cleaning

Any level of vehicle autonomy is going to involve lots of sensors, and these electronic eyes and ears are going to need cleaning in the real world. Continental’s camera cleaning system will become available by 2019. A jet of washer fluid sprays directly across the lens, relying on the Coandă effect to keep the cleaning fluid attached to the lens. Pressure can be adjusted from 29 to 65 psi, and the fluid can be heated. The various sensors can be programmed to detect dirt and clean themselves.


Continental Driver Analyzer Camera

Partially autonomous vehicles need to keep an eye not only on the road, but also on the person in the “driver’s” seat, to ensure that he or she is prepared to take over if the need arises. A steering-column-mounted camera creates a wire-form model of the driver’s face, paying special attention to where the eyes are looking and whether the lids are open. The system is supposed to be able to see through sunglasses, but it was unable to accurately read my eye position through mirrored nonpolarized Oakleys (it mistook my eyebrows for eyes), repeatedly chiding “please concentrate.”


ZF Driver Distraction Assist

ZF uses a laser-based sensor system to make a wireframe of the driver’s entire upper body and hands, paying attention to which way the head is turned and looking. It might not be able to detect the focus of the eyes as accurately as a camera, but its ability to determine the head and body position does not diminish in minimal/no light conditions. If the system senses distraction in a potentially critical situation, it flashes a visual warning up in the central display, then sounds an acoustic signal, and then—if the driver still hasn’t become attentive—it tightens the seatbelt. If the driver is still unresponsive, the assistant takes control and safely stops the vehicle.


ZF TRW Center Airbag

OK, this is a technology that really made its debut on the 2013 GM Lambda crossovers (Chevy Traverse, Buick Enclave, GMC Acadia). By inflating from the inboard edge of the driver’s seat, it helps keep front seat occupant heads from colliding in a side impact and helps provide protection of either front occupant from a side collision coming from the far side of the car. ZF TRW’s improvement on the concept is designing the bag so that it does not require a center console to fully separate the occupants in a crash. It does this with the shape and tethering of the bag. An increasing market for such bags is expected, thanks to anticipated new side impact test protocols for 2018.


Nexteer Steering on Demand with Quiet Wheel Steering

Former GM/Delphi steering systems supplier Nexteer has teamed with Continental to develop Steering on Demand autonomous steering system capable of managing intuitive steering transitions from driver to autonomous control for vehicles capable of SAE Level 3, Level 4, and Level 5 automated driving. Driven modes offer Sport, Comfort, and Manual override modes while autonomous modes can feature “Quiet Wheel Steering” operation, where the wheel stops moving and can retract away. The system is also able to detect road conditions based on the amount of torque required to steer under various conditions and can hence communicate these conditions to other vehicles in future connected-car environments.


Tenneco DRiV Shocks

There are loads of different types of “smart” shock absorbers available, boasting varying degrees of situational awareness that help them tailor their damping rates to suit current or predicted impending conditions. Most of these are several times more expensive than plain old “dumb” shocks. Tenneco is readying a savvy smart shock for 2020 production that should pencil out somewhere between the current crop of smart and dumb shocks. It does this by integrating the wheel-motion sensors as well as the actuator valves and electronic controller for each shock inside the tube. All the assembly plant has to do is plug a wire in that provides power, ground, and a CAN bus signal that shares steering, brake, and throttle info primarily. Inside the twin-tube shock are three identical valves controlling flow through three different-sized orifices. Closing various combinations of these valves provides eight distinct damping curves, the firmest of which closes all valves, routing fluid through a fourth bypass orifice. Patents are pending. The system dramatically improves body control during hard acceleration, braking, or cornering events, and it quells the after-effects of sharp ride inputs admirably.


Continental Two-Finger Gesture Control

Ordering your car to do things by waving your fingers like a symphony conductor can seem gimmicky, so Continental proposes using the large touch screen for simple eyes-on-the-road gestures. Tracing preprogrammed gesture shapes, such as a roof shape for navigate me home, a heart shape to call favorites, etc. By using two fingers, the system knows you’re in shorthand command mode, not panning a map or dragging an icon. Drivers can locate the screen with peripheral vision, so tests indicated that the time required to navigate to a gestured menu drops by a third and the mental effort required is about a quarter as much as a typical multi-step menu navigation demands.


ZF Wrong-Way Inhibit

Vehicles traveling the wrong way on a divided highway still cause some 300 or more deaths per year in the U.S., but with the proliferation of cameras, sign recognition, and high-def maps, vehicles can determine whether they’re about to enter a road the wrong way. Should this happen, ZF’s Wrong-Way Inhibit concept will first sound an acoustic warning signal, then vibrate the seatbelt, and light up an optical signal on the dashboard display. Higher steering wheel resistance reinforces the warning of an impending wrong turn. If the driver still attempts to go in the wrong direction, the system keeps the car on the outer edge of the lane, brakes to walking speed, and then to a stop while flashing the high beam headlights and the hazard warning lights to alert oncoming traffic. The driver can only leave the danger zone via the edge of the road, space permitting, or by shifting to reverse.


Continental Intelligent Glass Control

Electrically tinted roofs have been available on Mercedes and other high-end cars, but now Continental is proposing suspended-particle, liquid crystal, and electrochromism technologies for tint-on-demand applications on the side and rear windows, as well as a tint band across the top of the windshield. Particles arrange themselves randomly when unpowered, blocking visibility from the outside in while preserving dimmed transparency from inside out. They go fully transparent with voltage applied. Benefits include reduced sun load and glare and improved privacy when parked. Legal hurdles must still be surmounted before this technology can be applied in the U.S.


Liquid Wrench FlashSight Spray Penetrant/Lubricant

And finally, a cool innovation for the DIYer’s garage: a spray can that helps you “see where you spray” with a tiny LED spotlight. A twist-collar on the top of the can allows you to lock the trigger entirely, trigger the light alone, or trigger the light and the spray. Inside the can is a formulation of Liquid Wrench pro-grade anti-seize formula with a long lasting lubricant to reduce friction and wear while also combatting corrosion on all metals including copper, brass, and bronze. Available now at most auto parts and home improvement big-box stores, an 11-ounce can should cost about $10.


Tire Tech

No visit to Continental would be complete without some discussion of tires—it was the company’s founding business and still accounts for 26 percent of revenues. No cutting-edge technologies were rolled out at this year’s TechShow, but Gerrit Bolz, head of process development and tire assembly, gave us an update on several projects.

  • Taraxa Gum. This dandelion plant-based natural rubber substitute can grow almost anywhere, unlike tropical rubber trees. Conti has invested 38 million Euros on the project to date, but the material is not yet price competitive or widely enough available.
  • Zoned heat tire molds. One promising technology that is reducing the typical tradeoff between rolling resistance and (especially wet) tire grip is zoned temperature curing in the tire mold. The various different compounds optimized for different areas of the tire prefer to cure at different temperatures, varying between 140-160 or so degrees C. Continental’s secret, which it is not yet willing to divulge, is how the different areas of the mold are insulated from one another to maintain these 10-20-degree temperature differences during the curing process. Advances such as this are helping tires such as the newly introduced Continental PremiumContact 6 improve rolling resistance and tread life by 5 and 15 percent respectively, while maintaining the PremiumContact 5’s A wet traction EU tire label rating.
  • Airless tires. Bolz is very bearish on this concept ever finding widespread acceptance as a mainstream passenger tire due to their high noise and damping rate (a killer for rolling resistance). They’re great for skid-steer dozers, though!
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