ZF is probably best known for its advanced transmissions, which are employed by numerous automakers in a variety of different applications.
Traditionally, this tier-one supplier is all about gears, which should be no surprise since it’s right in their name. ZF, after all, stands for Zahnradfabrik Friedrichshafen, which literally translates into the tooth-wheel factory in Friedrichshafen, a southern-German city on the shores of Lake Constance.
But aside from heavy industry like this, the company is also developing plenty of advanced technologies, things that will help enable the upcoming autonomous revolution and reduce vehicle crashes along with their associated fatalities. At the company’s 2017 global press event in Austria, AutoGuide.com was given a glimpse of what’s coming down the pike.
1. Driver Distraction Assist
One of the most intriguing things ZF is developing is called Driver Distraction Assist, something that was demonstrated on its Vision Zero Vehicle, a concept car highlighting numerous cutting-edge features. Tapping into the power of a 3D interior camera (and tons of software), this technology keeps tabs on a car’s driver and can tell if they’re not paying attention. Should he or she glance away to adjust the climate control system or play with their smartphone, for example, the vehicle can warn them of their bad behavior through audio and visual alarms, or even haptically via a tug on the seatbelt. Should this fail to get their attention, the Vision Zero Vehicle can even steer itself to keep from driving off the road or come safely to a stop, greatly reducing the risk of a crash.
2. Highway Driving Support
Another leading-edge feature under development by the technology wizards at ZF is called Highway Driving Support. Think of this as the next generation of adaptive cruise control. Systems available today work well enough at controlling vehicle speed, accelerating and decelerating as road conditions dictate, but this system takes capability to the next level. Intended for exurban use, vehicles equipped with the firm’s Highway Driving Support technology can change lanes with the touch of a button, take exits without human intervention thanks to GPS map data, and even safely navigate through construction zones on its own through the power of advanced machine-learning algorithms.
Demonstrated on a heavily modified Opel station wagon, this technology changed lanes smoothly and accelerated around slower-moving traffic with ease. Things got a little dicey when the development engineer instructed the car to car take an off-ramp. For the most part, it did well at this challenging task, though the tight curve was beyond the capability of its sensor array and he ultimately had to take manual control. Despite this, the demonstration was nonetheless impressive.
Enabling these features is ZF’s Gen. 3 steering rack along with its electronic braking system, there’s also a front-facing mono camera and half a dozen radar sensors, three up front and three at the rear.
This system is basically ready for production now, so it could make its way to new vehicles sooner than you might expect. The next challenge engineers are tackling is making Highway Driving Support function in congested urban areas.
3. Automated Collision Avoidance
It’s reported that nearly 1.3 million people die each year in traffic accidents around the world. To help reduce these tragedies, ZF is developing technology that can allow a vehicle to automatically direct itself around obstacles and stop on its own.
Another Opel was the test platform for this, having been fitted with a forward-facing mono camera, a radar array and lots of computing power. This system proved its mettle in an aggressive demonstration. The family-friendly wagon was driven at a decent clip toward an inflatable “dummy” car. As it got close, the engineer showcasing this technology took his hands off the wheel and feet away from the pedals just before the car veered left into an open space and abruptly applied its brakes, coming to a halt in short order, avoiding a costly – and potentially deadly – crash had it happened in the real world. Thanks to its advanced sensors and silicon “brain,” the vehicle will only go around trouble if there’s enough room to maneuver; for extra control, the driver can always override this system by adding steering or accelerator input.
4. Wrong-Way Inhibit
Another innovative feature included on ZF’s Vision Zero Vehicle is called Wrong-Way Inhibit, which is designed to make sure you’re always traveling in the correct direction on highways.
While not nearly as deadly as distracted motorists, wrong-way drivers are still a significant cause of fatalities on the road. By tapping into GPS map data and traffic-sign recognition along with a plethora of sensors and software, these unfortunate incidents can be halted before they even start.
If the Vison Zero Vehicle detects that you’re heading the wrong way down an interstate on-ramp, for instance, it will provide an array of warnings: audio, visual and haptic. Should these prove ineffective, it can briefly reduce steering boost to really get the driver’s attention. If even that fails to make a difference it’s even capable of pulling itself over and stopping altogether.
5. Six-Phase Electric Power Steering
Self-driving cars are currently the holy grail for both automakers and suppliers. It seems like every company even remotely connected to transportation is hard at work developing autonomous technology. But if this stuff is ever going to arrive in showrooms it has to be safe; there must be layers of redundancy baked into every system.
ZF’s new belt-driven electrically boosted power-steering rack features a three-phase motor, which provides smooth and predictable boost, easing the driver’s burden. But it also offers no backup should something go awry. To alleviate this issue, engineers created a new version with six phases, an arrangement intended primarily for use in autonomous vehicles. The idea here is each group of three phases provides 50 percent of the requested steering torque, therefore if one of these fails, there’s still a safe amount of boost.
A Volkswagen Passat demonstrator was equipped with this modified steering system. Each triad of its electrical phases could be shut off independently to simulate a malfunction. With one of them disabled, the car was noticeably more difficult to steer, but only at speeds less than 10 miles an hour. While going faster than that it felt almost the same as before, but with both phases turned off this VW was nearly undrivable, especially during parking-lot maneuvers. This technology will enter production with a major European OEM around 2020 or 2021.
6. sMOTION Active Damping
Finally, ZF is working on a new active damping system called sMOTION, a clever piece of work that promises to dramatically improve vehicle ride quality. Building on existing technology, this advancement adds a motor pump to each corner of the suspension, allowing the dampers to apply more force than preceding systems to counteract pitching or rolling of the body, or to iron out uncomfortable impacts from surface imperfections.