I’m a graceless child of the ‘90s. A few months back, I leapt from my cubicle seat and triumphantly announced a switch from Mozilla to Chrome. My savvy colleagues poured nothing but disdain. Last week, I learnt how to craft a Facebook advert and wore a GPS activity tracker for the first time during a jog. When I was done, I spat on the earth and dared the Fates to do their worst.
See, unlike Gen-Z millennials who feel validated every time an adult acknowledges their feelings, I’m easily impressed with blinking lights, touchscreens and the Internet. But I have a feeling a jaw or two might drop when you see what the boffins at Continental AG have planned for Gen Alpha, which incidentally, is what comes after the current Gen Z have spent their youth chasing startup pipe dreams and hashtagging #YOLO every time they get an angel-wings tattoo on their backs.
The setting was Hannover, Continental’s ancestral seat of power, but the showcase of technological marvels would soon reveal why it’s terribly unfair to think of these guys merely as tyre manufacturers.
A ginormous conglomerate with a hand in everything from supplying automotive parts to novel technologies, it is literally changing the way our children will relate to their cars. And every two years, they open the doors, both to their sprawling city centre R&D units, and those of their fearsome Contidrom proving grounds in the homely Lüneberg Heath: rustic country homes, acres of pine trees and out of nowhere, a 3.8km high-speed oval that has tested over a million tyres since 1967.
This year’s Conti Tech Show had three chapters: electrification, connectivity and automated driving. With an international selection of hardcore tech-writers (except of course yours truly), they allowed me a peek before the official unveiling at the Frankfurt Motor Show.
One of the first innovations that grabbed my eyeballs was an egg yolk-yellow rim, attached to a new wheel concept. Aimed as harnessing every last ounce of energy from a braking system—especially those of electric vehicles—this new system separates the wheel and axle. So you get two aluminium parts, the first holding the brake disk and then the outer rim with the tyre. Unlike regular wheel brakes, the idea is to have the brake calliper on the inside of the aluminium disk. This allows for a particularly large diameter that lends to greater breaking performance and thus more energy recovered. And with a brake disk made of aluminium, Continental reckons it’ll last longer, offer easier brake pad changes, weigh less, and prevent corrosion and rust.
I shuffled on to the next station, again manned by the actual scientist/engineer whose baby it was. This one was christened All-Charge Technology. Created to make electric cars more useful than a Swiss army knife, this tech transforms the electric powertrain into a universal charger. This means juicing up a fridge to keep beers cold when you’re out camping, powering an electric stove to cook your freshly caught fish, and charging your mobile devices so your boss can still reach you even if you don’t get paid overtime. Continental also claims using its All Charge system will allow up to 12 times faster charging from urban charging stations, with a five-minute charge on 350kW DC allowing around 150km of driving range.
Then our Malaysian contingent of three got to drive a Super-Clean Electrified Diesel. Using a 48V mild hybrid system plus a series of magical spells and modifications to a Euro 6-standard diesel engine, engineers were able to reduce NOx emissions by an astounding 60%. Predicting that the diesel engine will continue to play an important role, at least in Europe, Jose Avila, president of the powertrain division, said it is important for the company to develop technologies that support extremely low-pollutant diesel options.
The Speakerless Audio demonstration was the one that really got me. Imagine ripping out the speakers from a car, then using surfaces like the dashboard, B- and A-pillar covers, seat frames and even the centre storage compartment as vibrating surfaces. Attached to undetectable actuators, any material that was firm enough to generate sound waves can be tuned to vibrate as a membrane, sending sound waves through the air. The entire car could theoretically be used as a giant speaker. The experience was surreal; wholesome bass that enveloped you; crisp treble notes that rang with bell-like clarity. Surround sound certainly takes on a whole new meaning.
Continental is also experimenting with Smart Surfaces in the cabin. Using a translucent material called Acella Hylite, colours can be projected onto the door cards, roof panels and even seats to stir drowsy drivers or warn them of potentially dangerous traffic conditions ahead. Or you could switch on the lighting to review billion-dollar contracts on the way to work. Or maybe to set the mood as you canoodle in the back seat.
Cruising Chauffer is another incredibly ingenious yet practical idea. Essentially a cruise control that’s smart enough to adhere to national traffic regulations, overtake when necessary, and alerts the driver when it’s time to take back control—usually just before you get off the highway. Right now, the car we experienced has a series of sensors that read a dozen parameters, and even automatically stopping on the road shoulder if the driver fails to respond (in the event of a heart attack or sudden unconsciousness). I cannot iterate how far evolved these cameras and sensors have become. Continental’s systems are able to identify pedestrians who are holding briefcases versus colourful backpacks. If it senses an adult stepping out onto the sidewalk with a multi-coloured bag, it instantly alerts the driver that a young child might follow, and advises extra caution.
Finally we were shown the next stage of automated parking. Imagine coming home a little too tipsy to make it up your narrow driveway. As you exit to puke into a drain, just tap an app on your mobile and the Trained Parking solution will drive your car up and into the allotted space. And because you’re also too smashed to unroll a charging cable for tomorrow’s commute, Continental’s created a wireless charging pad that lies flat on your garage. Connecting to a receiver on the underside of your vehicle, you’ll be good to go when the morning comes.
The innovators in Hannover are not only creating smarter cars, but safer and more enjoyable travelling. Their ideas are immediately impactful, offering solutions that also cut costs and address environmental concerns. The Conti Tech Show was a futuristic tour de force for the nature of mobility in the generations to come. And what’s more comforting than knowing the world will be a better place for our children?