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Safety tech likely to boost bottom lines

Automotive News reports on upcoming safety technologies from TRW.

DETROIT -- Global platform sharing and safety regulations are driving automotive technology at a frenetic rate. Supplier TRW Automotive Holdings Corp. says it can capitalize on this trend with its safety technologies.

For example, TRW offers lane-keeping assist technology, which steers a car toward the middle of a lane when a camera sees a driver is drifting toward a divider line.

The industry downturn cut TRW's global revenue 23 percent in 2009. But the suburban Detroit supplier has rebounded. For the first nine months, revenues jumped 30 percent to $10.67 billion and net income was $630 million, compared with a loss of $86 million a year earlier.

TRW's largest business lines are chassis systems and occupant safety systems. But its active safety electronics segment -- the company's smallest -- is poised to grow the most from the globalization trend in platforms and safety rules. The segment accounted for only 5 percent, or $600 million, of its global sales of $11.6 billion last year

'A great enabler'

"The march toward global platforms has enabled suppliers to commonize components across a wide array of global vehicles, and the amount of divergence in regulations is closing every day," said Michael Robinet, director of global production forecasts at IHS Automotive Group in suburban Detroit. "That becomes a great enabler for TRW."

TRW isn't the only supplier benefitting from those trends. Other suppliers of active-safety gear include Continental AG, Takata Corp., Denso Corp., Robert Bosch GmbH and Delphi Automotive.

One side effect of global platforms is that new technologies are being rolled out in previously low-tech markets, Robinet said.

"Electronics are a whole new area of expansion because of common vehicle architecture," he said. "The fact that the world is getting smaller is a good thing for the proliferation of technology."

The global market for camera-based lane departure warning or assistance systems is small now but will continue to grow, said Martin Thoone, TRW's vice president of electronics engineering.

"The majority of the business will remain in Europe and Japan," he said. "But we're predicting a quarter of the business will be in North America by 2014."

Europe accounts for 58 percent of TRW's business. North America makes up 26 percent, and the rest of the world accounts for 17 percent.

Debuted in 2009

TRW first put lane-keeping assist technology in the 2009 European compact Lancia Delta. A front-facing camera built into the windshield behind the rearview mirror captures the size of the lane and position of the car in the lane.

If the driver veers too close to either line, the car delivers torque to the steering wheel, gently moving the vehicle back toward the middle of the lane. The driver is always able to overrule the system.

TRW also has developed a radar system that can be paired with the onboard camera to control an active emergency braking system. The system applies the brakes to avoid collisions based on an algorithm that measures variables that include speed and distance of objects.

Europe recently required commercial trucks to be outfitted with lane departure warning systems and automatic emergency braking systems. TRW hopes Asian and North American regulators will follow Europe's lead, as other markets have for past technologies. Emerging markets, such as Brazil, now are implementing regulations on airbags.

"There's a groundswell toward more active safety features," said Andy Whydell, TRW's senior manager of product planning. "We've seen regulations push airbag technology and electronic stability control, and we'll see the same for new active safety technologies."

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has identified lane departure prevention as a priority and has recommended that consumers buy 2011 vehicles with such systems. NHTSA has yet to regulate automakers' use of the systems.

Kirk Morris, vice president of business development at TK Holdings Inc., said technology development is a long process. TK Holdings is the U.S. unit of Takata, of Tokyo.

"In general, we're developing technology 10 to 15 years before it's ever in a vehicle," he said. "The market will be willing to accept the technology when we've been able to demonstrate its capabilities."

(Source: Automotive News)