Over the last several decades, automakers have been reluctant to cede development of the few key things that define a car's character, primarily engines and transmissions.
But the move last year by Chrysler Group to outsource development of many future transmissions to ZF Friedrichshafen AG of Germany is a signal to suppliers: Some automakers facing tough new fuel economy requirements are ready to ask suppliers for help.
"A transmission in the past was still a core competence of some OEMs - not of every, but of some," said Ludger Reckmann, ZF's North American CEO. When "they don't want to invest with their own r&d activities in those technologies, they go to the specialist."
Chrysler, which had suffered some well publicized reliability problems with in-house transmissions prior to its 2009 bankruptcy, agreed last year to purchase ZF transmissions and also to assemble ZF-designed gearboxes under a licensing deal.
As a result, versions of the automaker's flagship 2012 Chrysler 300 and Dodge Charger sedans now feature the same ZF eight-speed rear-wheel-drive transmissions used in several luxury BMW models, giving the two large domestic sedans highway ratings of 31mpg.
Chrysler will begin producing licensed versions of the eight-speed at its plant in Kokomo, Ind., in the fourth quarter of 2012, Chrysler spokeswoman Jodi Tinson said. ZF, which is building a 940,000-square-foot plant in Greenville, S.C., also will produce the eight-speed and a new nine-speed front-wheel-drive transmission there in 2013, Reckmann said.
The relationship provides Chrysler with an immediate leap in transmission technology and fuel efficiency at a fraction of what it would cost to develop it on its own. It also provided ZF with sufficient sales to justify a factory in South Carolina.
For now, Chrysler is ZF's only North American customer, though others are looking, Reckmann said.