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It may be best known for its advanced transmissions, but German mega-supplier ZF is betting big on an upcoming era of e-mobility, expecting the development of autonomous and electrified vehicles to deliver significant growth.

That would be good news for the company’s 42,000 workers employed in facilities, such as ZF’s transmission plant in South Carolina, where “We’ve already made substantial investments ... to make them future-proof,” said Konstantin Sauer.

Appointed CEO of ZF Friedrichshafen AG last month, Sauer is nonetheless navigating a challenging course. It is far from certain how the public will accept both battery-powered and self-driving vehicles, and who will come out on top in the race to deliver the best technologies.

What is clear is that the company, based in Friedrichshafen, Germany, wants to supply a wide range of the components that future high-tech vehicles will require. That includes both conventional and electrified transmissions and drivetrain components, as well as some of the smarts that will make self-driving vehicles possible.

At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this month, ZF and key partners like NVIDIA showed off a pilot autonomous vehicle using many of the German companies parts and components, including its ProAI compact supercomputer system.

Later this year, ZF plans to roll out a fully driverless concept “people-mover,” dubbed eGO Mover, Sauer said.

Such vehicles could become commonplace over the next decade or two. A newly released study by the Boston Consulting Group predicts that 20 percent of the miles Americans travel by roads by 2035 will be inside self-driving vehicles, many of them operated by ride-sharing services like Uber or Lyft.

Of course, competition to dominate the field is fierce. Toyota showed off its own driverless shuttle, dubbed e-Palette, at CES. And ZF will have to face off with companies as diverse as German auto supplier rival Continental and Google spin-off Waymo, in the bid to sell its autonomous and driverless technologies.

The era of driverless vehicles could lead to dramatic changes within the vehicle itself. Since motorists won’t need to worry about driving duties – many future cars may not even have a steering wheel or pedals – cars could be transformed into mobile living rooms or offices. ZF’s interior components operation is looking for opportunities there, as well.

While the first truly autonomous vehicles are still at least a few years away from production, and while battery cars still make up a small share of the market, Sauer said ZF’s business is already building.

“Our mobility division will make $1.6 billion in revenues this year,” he said, noting that it has signed new contracts that will see that figure grow substantially in the years ahead.

pavel@aol.com

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