ZF: The Future is Now

This supplier is working hard to develop the digital, electrical and electronic technologies necessary to supplement the mechanical systems that it already provides in order to meet the needs of a rapidly transforming industry.

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Dr. Stefan Sommer, CEO of ZF Friedrichshafen AG (ZF Group; zf.com), a supplier of driveline, chassis and safety technologies, says that in 2013 he and his colleagues laid out a vision of what the auto industry would be like in 2025. After all, as a supplier of everything from transmissions to seatbelts, it is important to know what the landscape is expected to be like in order to have the technologies necessary on offer. (For example, to use those two items cited: They’ve decided that they won’t develop any new transmissions that don’t lend themselves to electrification; they are now offering a mechanism that facilitates seatbelt buckling by allowing the buckle to be elevated for easy access, then to retract into the seat.)

Sommer admits that they’re surprised: things have gone much faster in the industry than they anticipated; some of the technology that they expected for 2025 are in vehicles right now.

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And what’s important to note is that ZF is a company that has been developing advanced technologies for the past several years, technologies that will facilitate (at the least) automated and autonomous driving. (And it should be noted that the company is also developing technologies for spirited driving, as well: case in point is an eight-speed dual clutch transmission that it developed with Porsche that can accommodate a 100-kW hybrid module without having an effect on the overall size of the transmission; not only does the hybrid module provide 100- kW peak output, 55-kW continuous power and 400 Nm torque, a vehicle can accelerate up to 140 km/h on pure electric power alone (which translates to 134-hp peak power, 74-hp continuous power, 295 lb-ft, and 87 mph) One of the applications of this electrified eight-speed is in the Porsche Panamera.)
 

Sommer says that there is a changing automotive landscape, one that is characterized by such things as greater urban density, emissions-free zones in some cities, and the possibility of geo-fenced areas, all of which can necessitate not only different vehicle architectures (e.g., there might be some sort of small bus for inner city transport within a geo-fenced zone). And, of course, digital technology. He suggests that the traditional auto world must be melded with the burgeoning expectations of the generational change that’s occurring both in terms of technology and demographics.

One of the approaches that Sommer and his colleagues are pursuing from a managerial and organizational perspective (and it is worth noting that ZF has some 137,000 employees located in 40 countries, so there is some mass behind this movement) is codified in three categories:
1. Scout and find: look not only for technologies to adopt or develop, but also business models to deploy.
2. Collaborate and cooperate: the 21st-century industry is not about going alone and trying to beat the competition; sometimes coopetition is called for.
3. Bind and invest: sometimes it takes a handshake; sometimes it takes capital.
In the context of execution of technology on the ground (or in the cloud), particularly for autonomous driving facilitation, there are three activities:
1. See: which is where the deployment of various types of sensors come into play. ZF has radar capabilities, as well as optical sensors, such as its Tri-Cam three lens camera. And in line with point three above, it has taken a 40-percent stake in Ibeo Automotive Systems (ibeo-as.com), a solid-state LIDAR developer and a 45-percent stake in Astyx (astyx.net), a producer of ultra-high-frequency radar systems.
2. Think: as in the processing of information collected by the sensors comes into play. In this regard, ZF and NVIDIA are partnering to bring an artificial intelligence-based control unit, ProAI, to the market for automotive and industrial applications (when announcing the partnership at the 2017 CES Sommer said that even forklifts could benefit from ProAI).
3. Act: which goes to transporting people safely and reliably, which not only means that the seeing and thinking must be done superbly, but there must be underlying, well-built, driveline and chassis components—a car may not need a driver, it may not have a steering wheel, but it most certainly has something that makes it go as well as something that allows it to turn and stop.

And then there is something that has two, not three, elements that ZF is developing. This is what they call “Vision Zero,” and they have built a development vehicle to prove its viability.
1. Zero accidents
2. Zero emissions

There are a couple of interesting aspects of the “zero accidents” portion for assisted driving (i.e., the driver is still in control of the vehicle). One is what they call “Driver Distraction Assist.”

Even though there are laws against such things as texting and driving, ZF cites data from Allianz Zentrum für Technik that shows that in Germany, 350 people died—94 more than from drunk driving—as a result of distracted driving. And for the U.S., they show 2015 figures: 3,477 deaths from distraction.

While some companies are installing sensors in the steering wheel to assure that the driver is at least gripping it, the ZF system uses a laser-based time-of-flight interior camera (it is a method that essentially creates a depth map of the driver’s head). The system is capable of determining whether the driver’s eyes are off the road. After a limited time period it activates both a visual warning on the gauge cluster and a sound warning, and it cinches the seat belt (while lights and beeps can be ignored, the belt tightening gets one’s attention).

Should the driver still not take control, then the vehicle is capable of taking over the steering (here the exterior sensors and related processors and actuators come into play). If the driver is still distracted, the vehicle will slow and endeavor to find a place to safely stop the vehicle.

The other approach to zero accidents is named “Wrong-way Inhibit.” While the statistics regarding fatalities from people entering a freeway off ramp aren’t as high as from distracted driving—in Germany the number in 2016, according to ADAC, the German Automobile Club, was 12; in the U.S. the National Transportation Safety Board estimates an average 360 per year (this is predicated on figures from a study from 2004 to 2009)—but Dr. Harald Naunheimer, head of R&D at ZF (and know that ZF invests about six percent of its sales into R&D, and in 2016 its sales were €35.2-billion), says, “With Wrong-way Inhibit we want to help put an end to tragic accidents caused by wrong-way driving.” 

The system makes use of a front camera system that is capable of identifying and “reading” road signs as well as high-accuracy maps that are updated via the cloud. Should a driver be on a highway evidently heading for an exit, not entry, ramp, then, like the case with the distracted driving system, there are alerts—visual, audible, tactile (yes, the seatbelt)—and there is higher steering wheel effort required to turn the wheel. If that’s not enough, then the system moves the car to the outside edge of the lane and breaks to slow the car, all the way to a stop, and the high-beam headlights and hazard lights are initiated. At that point the driver can move the car by putting it in reverse or by maneuvering it along the edge of the road (if there is space to do so, determined by the GPS/mapping data).

The second aspect of Vision Zero—the zero emissions—is significantly simpler to think about, as in it being an electric vehicle.

What’s clever is that they have developed a compact, modular rear axle system that goes beyond what one might imagine a rear axle setup to be. The system—mSTARS, for “modular Semi-Trailing Arm Rear Suspension”—is not only a chassis component, but it houses the Vision Zero Vehicle’s 150-kW electric motor; two-stage, one-speed spur gear drive; a differential; and power electronics.
 

mSTARS is designed such that it can be deployed in existing vehicles. For example, the Vision Zero Vehicle is a Volkswagen Sharan, which is available with two gasoline engines, three diesel engines and zero electric powertrains.

However, mSTARS is not just a turnkey retrofit (in effect); can also serve as the basis for producing hybrids, fuel-cell powered vehicles, as well as electric vehicles.

While ZF is certainly still in the business of supplying automakers with technology in support of internal combustion engines, Sommer suggests that full electrification might be much larger than some people may have thought, and the percentage of electrified vehicles in Europe and China will be hitting 25 to 30 percent in the not-too-distant future. Given their expectations in this space, they’ve established an E-Mobility division that is staffed by more than 5,000 people.

“2025 has arrived as of today,” Sommer says. The chronology may be a bit off, but the technology is completely accurate.