In this interview, Matthew Beecham talks with executives of Tenneco Automotive about the company’s shock absorber business.

just-auto: I guess one of the challenges facing your shocks business is adding features for very little money.  How is Tenneco approaching that?

Tenneco Automotive: The most important feature of a shock absorber remains its contribution to safety. In serving the independent aftermarket, we have been confronted with reduced buying power of motorists. Nevertheless, we do have an entry product line, known as the Monroe Original, as well as a premium positioned product line, known as the Monroe Reflex.

For Monroe Reflex, we are using a more advanced valving system, known as the Twin Disc that results in an improved handling of the car in more extreme driving conditions, without using expensive electronic solutions. The Monroe Reflex Twin Disc technology stabilises the car faster by responding instantly to the smallest speed motion, maximises safety through greater stability and control without sacrificing comfort.

From a consumer point of view, we continue incentivizing and promoting the check of shock absorbers.  Shocks should be checked every 20.000 km and replaced every 80.000 km.

The safety triangle concept - the interdependency among tyres, shock absorbers and brakes - should never be forgotten. Shock absorbers can influence vehicle safety.

just-auto: We have all heard how many areas of automotive technology have been revolutionized by the greater use of electronics. What does this mean for dampers?

Tenneco Automotive: Electronics for dampers has meant a quantum leap in terms of the level of stability and comfort for new vehicles equipped with this type of system. Today, technology allows manufacturers like Monroe to design shock absorbers such as CES (continuously Controlled Electronic Suspension).  This technology uses an electronic control system that is able to modify continuously the damping level of the shock absorbers according to the road conditions and vehicle dynamics, i.e. speed, turning and cornering and driver’s inputs. 

Other technologies, such as ACCOCAR not only continuously modifies the damping level of shock absorbers according to the road conditions and vehicle dynamics but also controls the height of the vehicle at any moment thereby bringing a new level in terms safety and comfort.

These innovations are gradually entering the market through car manufacturers that are implementing these systems as optional equipment for the end user. Despite the fact that these technologies were initially dedicated to top-of-the range luxury vehicles, the growth of these systems in the OE market has been exponential. Every year, more car manufacturers are implementing these systems in their new mid-range passenger car developments, making this technology available to more people.

just-auto: Generally speaking, at an industry-wide level, how do you see the acceptance and growth rate of continuous damping technology by the OEMs?

Tenneco Automotive: Whereas the continuous damping technologies were initially reserved for the top-of-the-range vehicles (e.g. Audi A6 and above), over the past few years, we have seen this technology made available on mid-range cars such as the Audi A4 and VW Passat. The main reason is of course that people looking for a new car are willing to downsize their target model for environmental reasons without compromising on comfort. Thus this continuous damping technology found its way to a lower positioned car models than was initially anticipated by OEMs.

just-auto: What are the possibilities for adaptive damping systems?  

Tenneco Automotive: From our side, we at Monroe are already well advanced in the development of suspension systems that go further than only a continuously controlled suspension. Not only have we a semi-active in development that will become available very soon on a new car, we also are far advanced in developing a fully active suspension system. It goes without saying that there is a future for a suspension system that combines the “’steering – stopping – stability’ key words of our so called Monroe Safety Triangle. This Safety Triangle message is a part of our aftermarket communication programmes.

just-auto: As vehicles become ever quieter, what advances have been made to your dampers to improve NVH?

Tenneco Automotive: Vehicles become indeed quieter, both from the inside as from the outside. In our “Monroe European Technical Center” we have an anechoic chamber with build in EM shakers that allow us to simulate whatever road condition on all four wheels; so we are testing every single new developed shock on a car, together with the car manufacturers. Prior to this stage, we are also testing the shock absorber components via friction tests and cavitation tests.

just-auto: Turning to the aftermarket, how do you go about ‘educating the motorist’ about the dangers of worn-out shocks?

Tenneco Automotive: Monroe has been always very active in terms of educating the market, all our advertisements, promotions and campaigns always focus in showing the risks of driving with worn-out shock absorbers as well as the importance of a regular safety check of the suspension system. At the same time in 2005, Tenneco (Monroe) designed a complete training programme called 4T (Tenneco Train The Trainers). 4T is a “tailor made “ training programme designed to installers and technicians, with the aim of ensure that all the professionals dedicated to the suspension business have got the right information to do their job in the most effective and safety way. The results of this program since 2005 have been extremely positive with more than 52,000 installers trained all over Europe until December of 2009.

just-auto: Are there are national differences in the replacing shocks, say between Germany and France?

Tenneco Automotive: There are indeed big differences between all the European (EMEA) markets we are present in, as some have suffered more from the economical crisis than others. Also by tradition there are some differences, as unfortunately we see that in some markets the motorists have the intention to replace shocks absorbers per unit, something we absolutely cannot defend. Especially Germany but also France however are playing a role model, as we see that shock absorbers are mainly replaced in pairs, and on top of that the complementary products are often considered to be replaced (Monroe Mounting Kit and Monroe Protection Kit). These products not only guarantee a longer life of the new installed shocks absorbers, they also actively contribute to the safety of the motorist.

just-auto: We’ve seen reports that suggest the European aftermarket is growing at only 2–3% annually.  How is your shock absorber business performing?

Tenneco Automotive: We do see a growth on a rolling 12 month basis that is close to the 2 -- 3% you mention. Car parcs might then be growing but with the different national tax incentives for new, smaller cars installed all over Europe.

just-auto: Stepping back a little, what do you feel are the big challenges facing the vehicle industry globally in 2010/11?

Tenneco Automotive: This brings me back to the first point: we should closely work together with our entire distribution channel and find all possible ways to make sure that despite the reduced buying power of the motorists, they don’t give in on safety by not replacing shock absorbers when needed, or by having the job only half done.

What Tenneco is also offering to its customers is “full training package” not only on its products but also on different topics, like sales and negotiation of communication in order to support customers in their global business.