With more than $44 billion in 2018 revenue, a spot as one of the top five automotive suppliers around the world, and a size that is double and triple some of the most well-known truck OEMs, it might sound odd to hear that ZF thinks of itself as a relatively unknown entity in North America.
And yet, it’s hard to argue the point. While some obscurity simply comes with the territory of being a supplier rather than designing and building the vehicles your technology is going into, the German company feels that its work in autonomy and Advanced Driver-Assistance Systems can no longer go unnoticed.
With heavy equipment and automotive OEMs the world over investing deeply into electrification and automation, ZF is making a push for broader brand awareness and higher market share in North America. The company says it is the world’s leading supplier of automotive cameras and ZF vice president of commercial vehicle technology, Tom Bozek, says the company is currently developing components and providing support for all of the major players in the race for vehicle autonomy.
”We are heavily involved in both evolutionary and revolutionary approaches to automation,” Bozek says.
Though 80 percent of the company’s revenue comes from supplying OEMs of passenger cars with transmissions, steering systems and chassis components, the German company sees commercial vehicles as key to its aspirations on this continent. At a recent media event, ZF presented and demonstrated the strategy and systems that will serve as the foundation to the company’s push into the Class 3-8 markets in North America. Here’s what we learned.
A holistic approach to autonomy
Dan Williams, ZF’s director of ADAS & Autonomy, provided a bit more context for what the company means by “revolutionary” and “evolutionary” approaches to automation.
Williams explains that some companies like Google’s Waymo division are attempting to develop a revolutionary technology that skips each of SAE’s levels of automation and single-handedly ushers in the driverless future of vehicles. Meanwhile, other companies, like most vehicle OEMs, are taking an evolutionary approach by slowly introducing more and more autonomous capability over time, allowing customers to get used to each new advance before moving to the next.
For the revolutionaries the company is partnering with, Williams says ZF is developing both a redundant steering system that allows a driver to resume control from an autonomous car, as well as a central computer called ProAI. Built with graphics processing technology from NVIDIA, the computer generates an artificial intelligence-based model of the vehicle’s surrounding environment.
During the media event, ZF demonstrated this fully autonomous technology with a modified International RH Series. The truck drove itself around a pre-determined track without any problems. You can see a video of this demonstration below.
We’re still several years out from full autonomy seen in the demonstration above. In the next couple of years, ZF will be introducing more evolutionary technologies for commercial trucks which look very similar to the SAE levels 2 and 3 driver-assist features found on many new passenger cars. In fact, Williams says the core design and functionality of these new commercial ADAS features were developed for passenger cars and ported over to commercial applications.
Lane keeping and lane change assist
The core of ZF’s new ADAS features for commercial trucks is its ReAX adaptive steering system.
This electronic control system, planned for a 2020 release, works in concert with a hydraulic system to provide drivers with no-compromise steering that makes the truck easier to drive while reducing fatigue. While traveling at highway speeds, ReAX provides a steering feel that is more rigid and stable. However, at low speeds, the adaptive system is able to loosen up, making maneuvering through a yard or backing up to a trailer or dock much less fatiguing.
ZF says ReAX brings much of the feel and ease of operating a passenger car over to heavy trucks. (The company is also at work developing a fully electric power steering system for medium-duty trucks based on ReAX.)
For the new ADAS technology ZF is developing for lane keeping and lane changing, the company is tethering ReAX to information gathered about the truck’s environment through cameras and radar.
First up is OnTraX Lane Keeping Assist, which uses a front camera to see when the truck is nearing too close to the edges of the lane it is traveling in. When the truck drifts too far, the system gently turns the steering wheel back in the other direction to return the truck to the center of the lane.
ZF calls this return to center a “hint or a suggestion,” and after a demo of the technology around a 7.5-mile test track in Columbus, Ohio, I would have to agree. To test out the feature, I brought a Class 8 truck to highway speed and tried to leave the lane without signaling. As the truck moved right and neared the lane boundary, the steering wheel slowly turned back to the left. It might sound like it would be a jarring sensation, but the smoothness of the ReAX system’s correction makes it feel more like the normal effects of power steering on a passenger car.
“This isn’t an autonomous type of system,” Williams says. “We’re not taking control away from the driver. We’re giving driver a no intervention zone around the center of lane. Only when approaching lane boundary do we give the suggestion the driver steer back.”
Of course, Lane Keep does not intervene when you are attempting to leave a lane while signaling. However, it will correct if you signal incorrectly, for instance, if you signal right but move left.
Next is Lane Change Assist, which warns the driver if a vehicle is in his or her blind spot when attempting to change lanes. Once the turn signal is flipped, the system uses short range radar on the sides of the truck to look for any vehicles in the blind spot. If one is sensed, the steering wheel delivers a vibration to alert the driver.
In the demo, the vibration felt a bit like hitting speed strips. It was definitely a noticeable alert, but nothing over the top. However, it must be noted that despite giving the driver an alert, the system does not stop a driver from leaving the lane even if it senses an impedance in the blind spot. ZF says the decision of whether or not to leave the lane is still up to the driver.
ZF says Lane Keep Assist will be launched next year with the new ReAX system in partnership with an unnamed major OEM. There’s no release date on Lake Change Assist as ZF is still finalizing its radar system for production.