Schaeffler Group (schaeffler.com), a Tier One supplier, makes a variety of components such as bearings (roller, spherical, plain, and linear among them) and clutch systems, transmission systems and torsion dampers.
So, if you were to imagine what would be the first type of business that the group would spin off, what would it be?
Odds are good that whatever you answered is wrong.
They spun off a company that makes a variant of a pedelec.
At which point you’re probably wondering whether that’s some sort of bearing or transmission component that you’ve never heard of.
A pedelec is a low-powered electric bicycle. In the case of Schaeffler Bio-Hybrid GmbH, the vehicles that they will be producing—yes, a Tier One supplier producing vehicles—have four wheels. Yet the vehicles—there are cargo and passenger versions—are small enough to travel on bike paths (which are more common in European cities than they are in the U.S.).
So what’s behind this move?
“It grew out of our Mobility for Tomorrow strategy,” says Jeff Hemphill, chief technology officer for Schaeffler North America. “We want to make sure that we are participating in the new forms of mobility that spring up as transportation technology changes and digital, connected solutions become more common.”
Yes, the vehicle, which is called the “Bio-Hybrid” uses WiFi, GPS, Bluetooth, and 4G. Via a smartphone/smartwatch app the user is able to do a number of functions, including locking and unlocking the vehicle and running a system check. According to Hemphill the company is also developing an app that will allow people to rent a Bio-Hybrid. Think of this as being analogous to scooter rental although much more functional.
That is, because there are four wheels, the vehicle is stable. There is a canopy, so inclement weather is not as much of a drawback. The passenger version seats two people (the driver in front of the passenger); the cargo version seats one but has a cargo box on the back that measures 1,074 mm long and 660 mm wide; it has a payload capacity of 200 kg.
The Bio-Hybrid is based on a modular design so the two types of vehicle are similar. That is, both have a 250-W continuously rated electric drive system and a 25 km/h top electrically assisted speed. (Remember: this is like a bicycle, so there is muscle power involved, as well.) The battery voltage is 48 V and the battery capacity is 1.2 kWh (two batteries can be deployed so that rather than a range of 50 km for one, it goes to 100 km with two). The gearshift (remember, this is bicycle-like) is continuously variable and the reverse gear is electric. The Bio-Hybrid weighs approximately 100 kg.
As for dimensions, both the passenger and cargo models are 855 mm wide and 1,530 mm high. The difference is in the length of the two, with the passenger model being 2,180 mm long and the cargo version 2,595 mm long.
There is another vehicle that Schaeffler has developed that is more like a familiar motor vehicle, the Schaeffler Mover, a small autonomous bus-like unit that Hemphill describes as “a rolling laboratory,” as it makes use of two technologies, one that Schaeffler has developed, the “Intelligent Corner Module,” and one that it has acquired, “Space Drive,” via acquiring the company that developed it, Paravan GmbH.
The corner module consists of a wheel hub motor, steering and brakes. Hemphill says that this integrated module not only provides maximum interior space for compact vehicles, but it provides the ability to provide 90° steering, which is beneficial in congested urban environments (e.g., the vehicle can move sideways to slot into a parallel parking spot). While having the motor in the wheels means that there is a lot of unsprung weight, Hemphill points out that as this is a low-speed urban vehicle, that isn’t an issue: “If you have a vehicle trying to do high-speed handing maneuvers, the mass of the wheel motor can interfere with the ability of the suspension to keep the wheel pushed down against the pavement, but in low-speed driving, that’s not an issue.”
The Space Drive technology is a system that was originally developed as a retrofit package that allows handicapped people—even quadriplegics—to drive. It is a system that provides control of the steering, acceleration and braking without the need for conventional pedals or a steering wheel. (The quadriplegic control can be effected by tracking eye movement for steering and by having the driver blow into or suck out of a straw for acceleration and braking.) According to Hemphill, Paravan GmbH has had the system, which has triple-redundant control, licensed for us in the U.S. as well as European countries, and has had been used for more than 700-million kilometers of driving without accident.
Schaeffler Paravan Technologie GmbH, as the new company is known, is using this technology—actuators, controllers and software—for the Mover so that there is autonomous capability.
Scheffler has long been a participant in Formula E racing, the Formula 1 style series that uses electric vehicles instead of those powered with internal combustion engines. Schaeffler’s partner in this undertaking is Audi, the Audi ABT Schaeffler Team. (It is worth noting that Schaeffler is producing the gearboxes for the front and rear axles for the Audi e-tron, the company’s first battery electric SUV.)
The racing series allows the teams to build their own electric powertrains for the cars. While Schaeffler is no stranger to electric motors, having produced them for machine tools for more than 10 years, high-performance automotive traction motors are somewhat different. Schaeffler had been working with a company named Compact Dynamics GmbH on the powertrain, as that company has expertise in high-performance electric motors; in late 2017 it acquired the company.
What’s more, in late 2018 it acquired another company, Elmotec Statomat, which produces production machinery for the high volume production of electric motors, with particular expertise in winding technology.
So whether it is the pedalecs, electric robo-taxis, hybrids (its electric motor expertise is being applied in its P2 hybrid modules that are being used by Ford for the 2020 Police Interceptor Utility and Lincoln Aviator hybrids), or other types of vehicles, Schaeffler is well positioned.
Jeff Hemphill says with a laugh, “As a mechanical engineer I wish I would have paid more attention during my electrical engineering courses.”
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