ZF Friedrichshafen AG recently held its Technology Day showcasing its comprehensive approach to the future of mobility. Chief Executive Officer Wolf-Henning Scheider kicked the event off with an introduction to areas of focus driving their technology innovation: electric mobility, vehicle motion control, digitalization, automated driving, and integrated safety.
Other solutions showing a glimpse of what tomorrow's technology could hold, were for industries other than public transportation, but there are lessons to be learned from some of them as they are striving to achieve the same improvement: lower cost of ownership, improved safety, and increased efficiency.
Passenger Safety and Comfort
Several vehicle prototypes highlighted a future of autonomous operation for passenger travel. With autonomous operation, passenger comfort is going to become more important. A concept car with a drive-away chassis and an innovative cockpit for an autonomous vehicle provided a comfortable space where passengers and “drivers” have more flexibility in their space.
The concept car’s autonomous chassis looked at the concept of people having the option of paying per month to use the chassis – the most expensive part of auto ownership – and owning the pod. The chassis comes on demand, takes you in your pod to where you need to go, parks the pod, then can drive off to continue working.
The pod has a multi-use space where passengers can interact or engage in solitary activities. A large screen can provide a space for group discussions or webcasting, or passengers can utilize the individual screens at each seat. The pod can have sound throughout, or headphones can provide each individual with what they want to listen to.
The concept cockpit focused on redesigning a driver’s space when the primary function is no longer steering or controlling the vehicle. If Level 4 commercial vehicles are operated on autopilot, drivers can focus on other things while the vehicle moves to where it needs to go. Steering, acceleration and braking are performed by actuators that function in the background and receive their orders from the vehicle’s centralized computer, ZF ProAI.
For a future with a potential autonomous transit bus, while the vehicle might not need a driver, someone on the bus to check fares, answer questions, provide an added sense of safety for passengers could take on the new role.
The cockpit and concept car also serve as a reminder of the comfort and use of travel time, which public transportation options will need to compete with. Things like Wi-Fi and charging ports may become a standard “necessity” that riders come to expect.
Logistics solutions included autonomous operation but focused on the entire logistics chain, not just the autonomous vehicle.
One of the benefits of the incorporation of autonomous vehicles is the shortage of skilled drivers. The vehicles presented, including a delivery van and the ZF Innovation Truck, a hybrid truck based on a heavy six-wheeler, performed autonomous operation yet still had a “driver” role.
The heavy truck driver’s most challenging tasks like in the depot, where they need to load and unload freight, and its where companies see the most accidents and damage to vehicles due to driver error. The ZF Innovation Truck carried out all of the necessary tasks without a driver. The truck found its way to the target position utilizing GPS and RFID positioning. The driver is still needed to secure containers or lock parts of the trailer in place after the truck has positioned itself.
The Innovation Van is a solution tailored to delivery couriers, incorporating autonomous driving and electromobility, with a driver doing the final delivery to the door. The vehicle is equipped with level 4 autonomous operation functions, designed to independently maneuver through urban settings and to avoid obstacles. If there is no parking available where the courier needs to deliver a package, he or she can send the vehicle ahead to look for a parking space on its own.
Both the ZF Innovation Truck and Innovation Van utilized autonomous operation, but it wasn’t to try to replace a driver, it was to improve efficiency and improve safety. In both cases, the autonomous technology was targeted to address the key challenge points, while the driver’s role was adjusted to take on the other aspects of the overall task.
When asked about other companies showing package delivery being potentially done by drones or small autonomous robots, ZF’s Gerhard Gumpoltsberger said different companies look at the solutions in different ways. While ZF has the capability to also develop those types of solutions that wouldn’t require human involvement, he said, “The trick to tomorrow’s technology is balancing what the technology can do, with what people will accept.”
A Global Presence
During the press conference, Scheider was asked about trade barriers and the potential impact on ZF’s business strategy for the future. He said, “Trade barriers are not at all good for our business, there’s no question.”
ZF has approximately 230 locations in some 40 countries, producing driveline and chassis technology, as well as active and passive safety technology, around the world.
“We optimize the manufacturing process, going in both directions,” he said. “That was the system we are used to … I can’t imagine any party would be a winner.” He stressed, “There will be no winner.”