hella north america

Steve Lietaert, President, HELLA Corporate Center USA, Inc.

Steve Lietaert, President, HELLA Corporate Center USA, Inc.

On track with automotive safety tech

By Ilene Wolff

World War II was both a boon and a hindrance to the German company Hella, parent of automotive lighting and electronics supplier Hella North America. 

The company, which had grown to 1,000 employees in 1937 since its founding in 1899, had dwindled to just 45 by the end of the war. But also during World War II, Germany and several other countries developed radar (see sidebar on page 26), the technology on which the company’s modern sensors are based.

Since then, the family-run company has put those sensors and other technology, including energy-efficient LED lighting, to use. Hella — the world’s 35th largest automotive suppliers, ranked by Automotive News — has annual sales of about $6.5 billion, 21 percent of which is generated in the Americas, where the company has 4,500 employees.

In the United States, where it established operations in 1978, Hella has three locations: a manufacturing facility in Flora, IL, and offices in Peachtree City, GA, and Plymouth, MI.

Some 320 employees work in the Plymouth office, in design and development, sales, marketing, engineering, program management, purchasing, accounting and human resources. The local site expanded in June 2015, and currently includes 61,000 square feet of offices and a 25,000-square-foot test lab.

The Plymouth office is Hella’s Center of Competence for fuel control modules and memory seat modules, and houses its lighting design and development center. Other product development in Plymouth includes work on body control modules, vacuum pump controllers and contactless position sensors. The company writes annual paychecks totaling $28 million to its Michigan employees.

In addition to the Americas, Hella has locations in Africa, Asia and Europe in addition to its headquarters in Lippstadt, Germany.

The company spent about $612 million in research and development in 2015. Some of that money poured into Hella’s development center for electronics in Lippstadt, Germany, which opened in 2013 and is lit with the company’s own LEDs. The $16-million, 151,000-square-foot research center is home to 700 of the company’s 32,000 global employees. Researchers in Lippstadt focus on the company’s four product lines: driver assistance systems and energy management, steering, components and body electronics.

In 2008, the company diversified its product line to include customers outside the automotive industry in order to strategically broaden its business. Its first non-automotive product offering was LED lighting for roads, airports and buildings.

Even though Hella is a family-run company, it’s listed on the Frankfurt Stock Exchange, where shares were traded for the first time on Nov. 11, 2014.

X-OLOGY recently talked to Steve Lietaert, president of Hella Corporate Center USA, and Robert Hurley, product line director of driver assistance systems in the United States, about technology. Hella had just made a strong showing at the North American International Auto Show, with a futuristic front-of-car radar safety system that will alert drivers via an audible or light-based alert to cross traffic they may not be aware of. 

Lane change assistant is one of the many functions HELLA’s 24GHz radar sensors offer. Further functions include blind spot detection, rear cross-traffic alert, rear pre-crash and vehicle exit alert.

Lane change assistant is one of the many functions HELLA’s 24GHz radar sensors offer. Further functions include blind spot detection, rear cross-traffic alert, rear pre-crash and vehicle exit alert.

Safety with sensors
With more than 10 years’ experience with radar-based safety systems, and more than 9 million radar-based sensors in use on 125 models from 11 automakers, Hella is a major supplier of 24GHz sensor solutions in the international car market. The company started U.S. production in June 2015 at its plant in Flora, IL, on a new generation of its radar-based driver-assistance technology.

In addition to blind spot detection, lane change assistance, rear cross-traffic alert and rear pre-crash functions, Hella’s new system added an exit alert function to ensure the safety of all road users — pedestrians, cyclists and other vehicles — when a driver or passengers exit a car. The lane-change warning system monitors vehicles in the driver’s blind spot and alerts the driver to an unseen vehicle by a flashing symbol in the side mirror along with a slight vibration of the steering wheel.

Hella also manufactures sensors that turn on a car’s windshield wipers and headlights if it starts to rain, and an intelligent battery sensor that monitors a battery’s charge. The battery sensor enables the engine to turn off when a car is stopped at a light, as hybrids do, if there’s enough juice in the battery to turn it back on.

“In general, we have a focus on fuel economy,” says Lietaert.

“We have taken a scalable approach with our third-generation driver-assistance products, giving automakers the flexibility to offer a variety of driver safety packages to their customers, depending on the vehicle segments involved,” adds Hurley.

“Automotive safety systems based on the 24GHz narrow-band frequency can be used almost anywhere in the world and primarily support medium-range, rearward-facing applications,” Hurley says. “That’s why this bandwidth produces good results for standard applications involving lane change assist, blind spot detection and exiting a parking spot.” 

He points out that Hella’s radar-based driver safety systems, which operate on the 24GHz frequency, are developed in a cost-effective manner, making advanced driver assistance systems more accessible for high-volume vehicle segments (in addition to luxury cars) and supporting global efforts to reduce traffic accidents.

Hella, a European market leader for rear-radar systems, is also gaining market share in North America, with global demand for rear-radar applications forecasted to reach 11 million systems by 2019, compared with four million in 2014, according to Strategy Analytics. Since its first generation system was introduced in 2005, major updates have followed.

“We feel very good about the way our radar-based, driver-assist packages
are being refined, expanded and improved by our engineers and research teams,” Hurley says. “OEM and consumer acceptance of each new generation of radar-based, driver-assist system tells us we are on the right track with safety technology.”

J.D. Power & Associates 2015 U.S. Tech Choice Study supports the importance of safety-related, driver-assistance features to consumers. The study found that three of the top five technologies consumers would most prefer in their next vehicle are related to collision avoidance.

The report says auto consumers express the most interest in such technologies as blind-spot detection, night vision and enhanced collision-mitigation systems.

Light carpets and more
If safety-related features are most desired by consumers, how much further down the list is eliminating the necessity to switch back and forth from low beams to high beams at night during highway driving?

Hella thought of that, too, and developed the first headlight system that automatically adjusts high-beam lighting for oncoming traffic. The company’s Matrix LED headlight system uses cameras that help create glare-free tunnels, allowing drivers to keep their high beams on without blinding oncoming drivers.

Each headlight uses 25 electronically controlled LEDs that make it possible to create two or more dark zones, or tunnels, for oncoming traffic to maximize both safety and visibility. For example, if there are two oncoming vehicles, Hella’s matrix headlamps will mask the approaching vehicles, while maintaining high-beam lighting between the two cars, as well as to the right and left of each one.

In addition to creating glare-free traffic zones, Hella’s matrix high beams also adjust to provide maximum lighting along bends and curves in the road.

Federal motor vehicle safety standards don’t allow the use of MATRIX lights in the United States, but Lietaert says Hella is involved in an industry consortium to get the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to change the standard.

Another industry first for Hella is a light carpet that illuminates a vehicle’s side areas in the dark. The feature lights the ground more than 12 feet on both sides of a vehicle, making it easy to locate a car with the press of a button on a key fob. 

Unlike earlier systems that were installed in an outside mirror or the underside of the driver’s door, Hella’s LED modules are mounted in the rocker panels behind the car’s front wheels. Each lens is crafted from a number of micro lenses. A single lens generates a very weak strip of light due to its small size, but combining a large number of small lights creates a brighter light pattern. This also proves helpful if dirt covers portions of the LED, because other lenses will be pointed at the area to be illuminated.


What is radar?

Radar, the object detection system that uses radio waves to determine the range, angle or velocity of objects, owes its development in part to scientists in the same country where the Hella company (see main article) originated – Germany.

As early as 1886, 13 years before Hella’s founding in 1899, German physicist Heinrich Hertz determined that physical objects reflect radio waves. Hertz was also first to prove the existence of electromagnetic waves. The measurement used to describe the length of an individual electromagnetic wave was named in his honor.

In 1904, German inventor Christian Hulsmeyer demonstrated with his “telemobiloscope” that he could detect a ship in dense fog using radio waves, but not how far it was from his transmitter. He’s often credited with developing radar by mistake; because his apparatus couldn’t tell the operator how far an object is, it wasn’t a true radar system.

Today, in addition to the sensors Hella uses for driver safety and convenience, as well as energy conservation, radar is used in air traffic control, meteorology, geology, public health, military applications, ocean exploration, space travel, machine learning and more