From the niche into the world.
Entrepreneurship. Six years ago, private wealth had told the fascinating story of Roland Arnold, a passionate family entrepreneur. His motivation was to restore mobility and independence to people with disabilities. Now Arnold has sold his technology. In exchange for an even greater vision.
They queued up in front of his tinkerer manufactory on the Alb, says Roland Arnold, the automotive supplier and manufacturer. "Because we have something they urgently need: the world's only road approval for a redundant steering system with which cars can be controlled digitally via joystick and need neither steering wheel nor steering column," explains the founder of the Swabian company Paravan.
The drive-by-wire technology that Roland Arnold named "Space Drive" could indeed be the key to the billion-dollar market of autonomous driving. "A groundbreaking milestone on the way to the digitalization of the entire automotive world," says Arnold in the justification of the renowned German Entrepreneur Award of the Harvard Club of Germany, which he has won in recent years among many other awards.
The race for the Paravan development was won by nun Schaeffler, an automotive supplier from Herzogenaurach, Franconia, also in family hands. Together with Schaeffler, Arnold recently founded a joint venture, Schaeffler Paravan Technologie, in which the entrepreneur from the Swabian Alb still holds a ten percent stake.
"For me, this is a win-win situation. Schaeffler is developing space drive technology on a large scale, and I supply the know-how for the technology and road approval," explains Arnold. The fact that Schaeffler is also a family business was particularly important to him: "I had the best feeling during the talks with Mr. Schaeffler and the top management. I am certain that the Group will invest in the technology and bring it to series maturity."
There would have been other possibilities. The Swabian inventor spoke with many national and international interested parties.
The fact that the Paravan boss had even thought of a sale happened for a simple reason. "We invented the wheel, so to speak - the technology with which you can drive autonomously. But we would never have been able to mass produce it on our own," explains the company founder and head of 180 employees.
Arnold had already made a first attempt in this direction in 2011. At that time, he sold a minority stake to the family entrepreneur Reinhold Würth in order to be able to fall back on the worldwide infrastructure of the world market leader in screws in the future. "The main focus was on the sales network of the trading group for assembly and fastening materials," explains Arnold.
Four years later, Würth increased its stake to 51 percent. "I still had full freedom of action," sagt Arnold.
Why he then bought back 51 percent of Würth in July 2018, the entrepreneur does not want to tell in detail. Obviously, the development of a revolutionary technology in the automotive sector required more internal industry know-how. And Arnold needed a new plan - also to finance the buyback.
He finally found the solution bei Schaeffler. Both sides have agreed not to disclose how much money has come from Herzogenaurach for the Paravan technology. For the entrepreneur, it is the best way to further develop the Space Drive technology, which actually emerged from a niche product - mobility for the disabled.
At his original company he is now the master of the house again. "I sold a quarter of the shares to Schaeffler, retained 75 percent. I can now devote myself without restriction to the subject for which my heart beats - making people who are restricted in their mobility due to their disability mobile again in such a way that they can participate in life," Arnold says. A sale of Paravan itself was therefore never an option.
And for the joint venture: "It's better to own ten percent of something big than 100 percent of something that can never really get big."
The fact that Arnold takes a very clear stand for his core concern is also shown by how he intends to use Schaeffler's capital. "I will reinvest it in the company in Aichelau to advance vehicle conversion for people with limited mobility."
Meanwhile, the Federal Cartel Office has also approved the deal between Paravan and Schaeffler. At the beginning of October, Space Drive technology was transferred to Schaeffler Paravan Technology. "So now we can start with the adventure of autonomous driving." The next generation of the system, Space Drive III, is already on track, the first prototypes are planned for next year. 2021 or 2022 could see the start of mass production.
Then the steering wheel and steering column should be superfluous. Brake, throttle and steering are controlled by an intelligent digital drive-by-wire system. The navigation is carried out by the signals of the sensor system. There is no connection between steering and chassis.
If you are uncomfortable with the idea of autonomous driving and the risks to the general public, Arnold assures you that his drive-by-wire system is completely fail-safe. "People who don't have arms can't reach into the steering wheel when a system fails." All other common systems of autonomous driving, on the other hand, would still require the use of arms at some point today. "There's man the fail-safe. Not with us."
Not only since the accidents of Tesla or Uber vehicles has the topic of safety been at the top of the scale of challenges in the further development of autonomous driving. The decisive factor here will be redundancy, i.e. resources of a technical system that run in parallel and are available at all times and that are not normally required for trouble-free operation.
"And we can score with that. Through the interaction of electronics, mechatronics, hardware and software, our concept offers triple protection against system failure," explains Arnold. "It meets all legal requirements, is TÜV-certified and already approved for road use worldwide. Test fleets of other automobile manufacturers for autonomous driving, on the other hand, have so far only special permits."
In fact, the system has long since passed the practical test. Arnold's company has since 2003 built around 7500 vehicles with systems for disabled people, which have covered more than 700 million road kilometres without any problems.
An argument that convinces many automobile manufacturers, suppliers and research institutes. Today BMW, Mercedes, Audi and Toyota or the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft for prototypes and test vehicles rely on the technology of the Alb for autonomous driving. "There is almost no manufacturer left who does not have a system from us for their show cars," assures the Paravan boss.
The Schaeffler Group hopes that access to the technology and global road approval will enable it to be much faster than its competitors. Head of Development Peter Gutzmer speaks of an experience and time advantage of at least three to four years. Other automotive suppliers are also working feverishly on this topic. For example, ZF Friedrichshafen plans to start mass production of an autonomous, electrically powered minibus next year.
"The race is open," smiles Arnold. So far, Paravan technology has only been available for small series - as a solution for converting vehicles to be handicapped accessible. This could change with the industrialization of Space Drive. High quantities with a large vertical range of manufacture naturally also mean that the unit price of the system would fall significantly. "I could be part of a big change in the car industry and help more people with disabilities at the same time. There can't be anything better for me than that." ®
Author: Miriam Zerbel