“Innovative technology should … make a positive contribution to society”

The heartbeat of innovation

Continental celebrates 150 years of pioneering technology

 


OCTOBER 2021 Investing in Japan / Text by Toby Waters / Photos by Benjamin Parks


On 8 October 1871, a small rubber manufacturer opened in Hanover, Germany, and began producing rubber horseshoes. Today, that same firm has some 193,000 employees worldwide and operates in 58 countries. As automotive parts manufacturer Continental celebrates its 150th anniversary this month, it recognises that one of the keys to its longevity is its heart for innovation.

“If a company is to be successful over one and a half centuries, it must be able to adapt and change,” says Bert Wolfram, president and CEO of Continental Japan. “Actually, it must be able to transform its business again and again.”

FROM HORSESHOES TO HORSEPOWER

After rubber horseshoes, Continental moved on to making tyres for bicycles and carts. Then, as the age of the automobile dawned, it transitioned to manufacturing tyres for cars.

While tyres and rubber products are still important divisions within the firm, over the past decades it has built up its automotive technology unit to account for 50% of its business, providing solutions for “everything that turns or moves”, according to Wolfram. Many of Continental’s innovations for vehicles have gone on to become standard features in cars. To date, its software has been installed in one billion devices in 100 million vehicles worldwide.

“We introduced the first microprocessor-based anti-lock braking system, which has contributed greatly to traffic safety improvements,” says Wolfram. “It was also ground-breaking in 1999 when we supported Mercedes-Benz with our radar technology in the development of their first adaptive cruise control system, which adjusts a car’s speed based on the distance to the vehicle in front of it.”

In another first, the firm recently developed car tyres made from dandelion rubber instead of crude oil.

“This is a big step, in line with a vision of sustainable supply chains,” Wolfram states. “Innovative technology should make mobility safer and more affordable, and, in the end, make a positive contribution to society.”

Now, Continental is going through another transformation — unquestionably, the biggest in its history. It is leading the industry in developing new technologies to help vehicles become autonomous and connected, with the aim of enhancing sustainability and safety.

“And everything is happening at the same time,” says Wolfram, “and very quickly.”

GIVING JAPAN A LIFT

Japanese automakers produce roughly a third of all vehicles worldwide, and these firms make up the biggest customer group for Continental, according to Wolfram.

“Continental Japan celebrated its 20th anniversary last year, which demonstrates our long-term commitment to our customers here,” he says. “And we are committed to supporting Japan on its way to making the vision of autonomous mobility a reality.”

Globally, the company is a market leader in the field of advanced driver assistance systems. These use forward-facing cameras located behind the windshield and radar sensors in the bumpers, as well as an electronic control unit, which Wolfram calls “the brain”. These innovative systems are already taking automation in Japan to the next level.

“We were able to demonstrate the capabilities of our technology in the Honda Legend SENSING Elite, a level three self-driving vehicle. At level three, the vehicle is in charge,” he explains. “It’s the world’s first production vehicle to receive government approval to operate fully automatically, without the control of the driver.”

“we are committed to supporting Japan on its way to making the vision of autonomous mobility a reality”

ROBOTS ON THE ROAD

There are other major achievements Continental Japan has made in the area of autonomous driving. Together with its French partner EasyMile, it has developed technology for the Robo-Taxi. This vehicle is essentially a platform for testing Continental’s self-driving technology. In 2019, the firm became the first supplier in Japan to receive a license to test such a vehicle on public roads.

The Robo-Taxi’s sensors are capable of generating a 3D map of its environment. It also has to be able to recognise traffic lights and pedestrians in all circumstances, including in fog, in snow, and at night.

“We are part of the government’s Strategic Innovation Promotion Program, which aims to see new technologies developed to benefit Japan,” notes Wolfram. “Japan really wants to lead in the area of autonomous mobility, and we want to support this.”

Though the Robo-Taxi is not yet ready for widespread use, Wolfram sees its technology helping people in Japan and across the world.

“Over 29% of the Japanese population is older than 65 and, increasingly, people in this group won’t have access to, or be able to drive, a vehicle. Also, outside the main cities, taxi drivers are becoming something of an endangered species,” he says. “This is where autonomous mobility can help. It will ensure that there are flexible commuting opportunities for an ageing society. The same is true for the transportation of goods, where fewer truck drivers are available. There are needs, and we’re here to help meet them.”

A STRONG HEARTBEAT

The motto for Continental’s anniversary is “Mobility. Our heartbeat for 150 years”, so the company got its employees’ hearts beating to celebrate.

Between 1 October and 8 October, the firm held a global Heartbeat Challenge, which encouraged employees to do some physical exercise — such as biking, running, swimming, rowing, and yoga — and count the minutes they did it. At the end, the employees who took part had logged 14,491,530 minutes of activity and, based on this number, Continental donated €180,000 to six non-profit organisations worldwide, which were voted on by employees. The Japan team was proud to see the Yokohama Food Bank, the NPO they put forward, as one of those to be selected.

“I think that’s the perfect kind of engagement with our workforce, in line with two of our core values: ‘Passion to win’ and ‘For one another’,” Wolfram says. “Exercising shows our passion to win, while doing it for a good cause shows how we are here for one another.”

As part of the anniversary, employees’ hearts beat a bit faster for a week to benefit some good causes, but Wolfram believes they beat with excitement every day to achieve the firm’s mission.

“Our hearts beat with the passion for innovation and contributing to a safer and more sustainable mobility,” he says. “That’s what gets us up in the morning.”

And it is what will get Continental’s employees up in the morning for many more years to come. 

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