Parts Supplier to Challenge VW, Ford With $14 Billion Push Into Self-Driving Cars

(Bloomberg) -- Volkswagen AG and Ford Motor Co. are set for more competition in the race to role out self-driving vehicles as parts supplier ZF Friedrichshafen AG develops its own offering in the latest sign of how technology shifts are upending traditional roles in the auto industry.

ZF plans to invest 12 billion euros ($14 billion) over the next five years on electric and autonomous vehicle technology. The spending of about 2.4 billion euros annually outpaces the 2.2 billion euros ZF spent in overall research and development last year. The project includes developing a battery-powered delivery van that can drive on its own, the German automotive supplier said Wednesday.

“Our concept vehicle will be ready for series production during the next two years,” Chief Executive Officer Wolf-Henning Scheider said. “We’re in concrete discussions with several customers.”

ZF ranks among the world’s biggest car-parts manufacturers after the $12.9 billion takeover of TRW Automotive Holdings Corp. three years ago. The privately-held company plans to test the vehicle in its hometown of Friedrichshafen in a move that will see it go head-to-head with Volkswagen’s Crafter or Ford’s Transit van.

The car industry’s shift to electric and self-driving vehicles is opening the field to new competitors. Aside from Tesla Inc., Chinese start-ups such as NIO Inc. are proliferating, and Germany’s postal service already makes its own bare-bones electric delivery vans. Autonomous vehicles are likely to first take off in commercial applications due to the challenge of finding drivers and the hopes for efficiency gains amid booming online shopping.

ZF’s van will be highly automated and able to navigate city centers on its own, recognizing traffic lights, maintaining its lane even on streets without markings and moving around double-parked cars, the company said at the commercial vehicle fair in Hanover, Germany. The vehicle will also feature a “follow me” function allowing a parcel carrier to deliver packages on foot. It will also be able to be sent ahead to the next stop in case there’s no parking in the immediate area.

Earnings goals are intact despite higher spending pressure:

  • CEO sees company on course to deliver annual financial targets
  • Company in July forecast revenue of 36.5 billion euros, EBIT margin of 6 percent and free cash flow of 1 billion euros
  • ZF holds targets as competitors Continental AG cuts outlook, Schaeffler AG reduces auto division target

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