Collision-free, emission-free driving – no zero-sum game

Michael Nash talks to ZF experts about the innovative safety and powertrain technologies featured on its Vision Zero Vehicle

Crash data reports make for sombre reading. The latest to be published by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) shows that 37,461 lives were lost on US roads in 2016, marking a 5.6% increase from 2015 and the second consecutive year of rising fatalities.

In Europe, 25,670 people died in road traffic-related collisions according to statistics from the European Transport Safety Council. While this represents a 2% decrease compared to the previous year, it is still a long way from the target set by the European Union in 2010 to halve the 2010 figure of 31,500 road traffic fatalities by 2020.

Reducing emissions is also a key issue for the automotive industry, with authorities all over the world setting tougher targets. These typically come in the form of a proposal or guideline document before being introduced as legislation. As a result, OEMs and suppliers are constantly developing new technologies.

ZF Vision Zero

A personal goal

ZF, the German supplier headquartered in Friedrichshafen, has a lofty ambition of its own. Speaking to Megatrends, Peter Lake, Member of the Board of Management at ZF, described in detail the thinking behind the Vision Zero Vehicle.

“A future of personal mobility with zero collisions and zero local emissions – that’s our goal,” Lake said. “The exact detail of that route is not entirely clear to anyone, and I don’t want to over-emphasise the term ‘disruption’, but there is uncertainty as to exactly how technologies will develop.”

The supplier provided a glimpse into its expectations for technology that will allow it to meet its goal with its Vision Zero Vehicle – a fully electric concept car that was unveiled in the run-up to the 2017 Frankfurt Motor Show at ZF’s Global Press Event held on a test track in Bratislava, Slovakia. ZF’s contribution to the Vision Zero initiative is capable of allowing the person in the driver’s seat to take their hands off the wheel and feet off the pedals, and includes a host of safety technologies that are designed to lower the chance of a collision occurring when the car is in manual mode.

ZF Driver Distraction Assist
ZF’s Driver Distraction Assist technology monitors driver attention, and issues warnings or even assumes control in critical situations

Fatal distraction

Distraction fatigue can be fatal. According to the NHTSA data, there were 3,450 fatalities on US roads caused by distracted drivers in 2016, and 803 fatalities caused by drowsiness. A new study carried out by driving analytics company Zendrive found that drivers are using their phones on 88% of journeys, with an average of 3.5 minutes spent per hour – a worrying stat as a two-second distraction can increase the risk of a crash taking place by 20%.

Using a laser-based time-of-flight interior camera with artificial intelligence (AI), the ZF concept car monitors the position of the driver’s head in 3D. If the driver looks away from the road, the system provides an optical warning before giving an acoustic signal while also automatically tightening the seatbelts.

The car also has a system called ‘Wrong-way Inhibit’ to prevent drivers from entering roads from the wrong direction. According to the General German Automobile Club (ADAC), the number of fatalities in 2016 caused by people driving past no entry signs was 12, and a total of 2,200 radio traffic announcements were made due to wrong way incidents – a surprisingly frequent occurrence on the Autobahn in particular due to the quirks of Germany’s entry ramp designs.

“The car knows exactly which roads it should not enter by using information from highly accurate maps that are constantly updated via the Cloud as well as traffic signs and road markings that are recognised by a forward-facing camera,” Volker Vogul, Project Manager and Software Engineer at ZF, explained to Megatrends. “This is particularly helpful for older drivers, who often don’t realise their mistake.”

The system will carry out the same sequence of events that takes place when a driver is distracted – first providing an optical warning, then an acoustic warning before tightening the seatbelts. It will also slowly bring the vehicle to a halt at the side of the road before activating the hazard warning lights and high beam headlights.

Vogul is confident that addressing the issues of distracted driving and preventing drivers from entering roads the wrong way will “have a big impact on lowering crashes that occur every day on our roads.” The next step, he added, is eliminating human error.

A tip to autonomous

As well as a conventional steering wheel, the concept vehicle can be controlled using a haptic dial found on the centre console. “The idea of this is to free up more space, because people might want to have a laptop or a tray to put food on in front of them instead,” Vogul said.

ZF Wrong way Inhibit
“The car knows exactly which roads it should not enter by using information from highly accurate maps that are constantly updated via the Cloud as well as traffic signs and road markings that are recognised by a forward-facing camera” – Volker Vogul, Project Manager and Software Engineer at ZF

The car can also be used in autonomous mode. Embedded inside is a ZF ProAI control unit that is based on the supercomputer platform supplied by its joint venture (JV) partner Nvidia. It works by processing inputs from multiple cameras, LiDAR, radar and ultrasonic sensors – a task known as sensor fusion. This allows the vehicle to obtain a 360-degree view before locating itself on an HD map to find a safe path.

“The vehicle can detect obstacles in the road and changes to the surface through a fusion of information obtained via the camera, radar, LiDAR and map data,” Vogul said. “If the car detects road works ahead and knows that it cannot continue to function in autonomous mode, it prompts the driver with a variety of warnings. If the driver still doesn’t take control, the car will slow safely and stop at the side of the road.”

At the moment, the autonomous mode only functions at speeds of up to 60kph (37mph). However, Vogul revealed that ZF is already testing the technology at higher speeds.

Keeping options open

While much of the emphasis of the concept car is on the safety features and the autonomous driving technology, Lake thinks that its all-electric drivetrain is a vital part of the puzzle.

ZF mSTARS System
ZF’s mSTARS modular rear axle system, which can be used for PHEVs and BEVs, allows OEMs to react quickly to changing market demands

“We are all about electrification,” he affirmed. “The concept car uses our modular rear axle system called mSTARS, which is a robust solution that allows OEMs to react fast to changing market demands as it can be used for plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) and battery-electric vehicles (BEVs).”

The system also houses the electric motor and a two-stage one-speed spur gear drive, a differential and the power electronics. By including all of this in the axle drive unit, ZF has managed to save both weight and space.

Looking ahead, Lake is confident that the mSTARS system will make electrification increasingly enticing for both OEMs and consumers as it “delivers the performance of a more expensive, conventional multi-link axle typically used in compact and sports vehicles.” However, like many, he believes that the uptake of electrified vehicles is highly dependent upon regulation.

“There is a level of uncertainty around the pace and content of the regulatory framework that will evolve as far as electrification is concerned, as some authorities in certain parts of the world are more aggressive than others in lowering emissions,” Lake said. “For a supplier like ZF, a strategy that is sufficiently robust to support various scenarios that arise is an absolute must. This means we need to invest in PHEVs, in BEVs and in fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs). Nobody has a crystal ball, and so we must keep our options open.”

This article appeared in the Q4 2017 issue of Automotive Megatrends Magazine.