ZF Friedrichshafen AG, more commonly known as the ZF Group or even just ZF, is a leading supplier of automotive components worldwide. With its headquarters based in Friedrichshafen, Germany, the company has been present in India since the early-1980s. Over the last decade, with its numerous global tie-ups, acquisitions and takeovers, ZF has become a force to reckon with in the automotive industry and currently has 230 production locations in 40 countries. With its expertise in a wide range of automotive applications – including transmissions, steering systems, chassis and driveline technology, suspension systems, braking systems, safety components and driver assistance systems – ZF works closely with leading automotive OEMs as a valuable technology partner.
While it’s headquartered in Pune, ZF India has operations spread across various locations in the country, via various joint ventures and companies which it has acquired. Some of these locations include Coimbatore (ZF Wind Power), New Delhi (ZF Hero Chassis Systems) and Chennai (Brakes India and Rane TRW Steering Systems) to mention just a few. In March this year, ZF also set up its first India Technology Center in Hyderdabad, where the key focus area for engineers is working on electronics, software solutions, autonomous cars and other future-oriented technologies.
ZF recognises that ‘digitalisation’ is a key global trend, which will in many ways shape the global automotive industry in the years to come. Hence, in addition components and mechanical systems, the company aims to be a technology leader in the areas of automotive safety, efficiency and ultimately, autonomous driving.
With ‘Vision Zero,’ ZF’s long-term objective is to achieve zero emissions and zero accidents, and the company is relentlessly working on technologies that will help OEMs create a whole new generation of cars that are electric, autonomous and connected.
In the context of the above, ZF recently hosted a global media event in Austria, where it showcased some of its cutting-edge technology solutions for automotive safety, electrification, ADAS and autonomous driving. Here we take a look at some of the technologies presented during the event.
According to a widely statistic, about 90 % of all road accidents are caused by human error, which is why autonomous / self-driving cars may have huge potential for reducing the number of accidents that happen worldwide. And while autonomous cars are not subject to human lapses in judgement and do not indulge in risky driving behaviour, they will be able to best achieve their safety potential only when all cars are autonomous (thereby entirely removing humans from the driving equation) and connected, so that their sensors and software systems can freely communicate with each other.
ZF already has autonomous car technology under development and using this technology, it’s possible for a driver to take his hands off the steering wheel, allowing the car to drive itself, though under constant, alert human supervision only (the human driver has to be ready to take over in a split second, should the situation demand so). Yes, the technology is still under development and not yet ready for road use – testing is carried out in strictly controlled conditions, at limited speeds, by authorised personnel only and only in areas where it’s allowed by local authorities. However, even in the form that it exists today, the technology is suitably impressive and is expected to develop further at a rapid pace. While ZF engineers did not specify a timeframe for when they expect fully autonomous car technology to become ready for production, a rough estimate can be pegged at around 15-20 years.
Of the main challenges in developing this technology, which will likely require a lot of work, is the time available to various on-board sensors and actuators to detect a threatening situation on the road and react to it in a suitable manner. The time to react can be as little as 0.3-0.5 seconds, making it a challenge for engineers. Given the sheer number of things that can go wrong in the real world, ZF engineers have drawn up an extensive list of possible scenarios for various types of collisions, and are trying to define how an autonomous car should react in each of those scenarios. Of course, recognising complex road systems (which can vary significantly between different regions and different countries), and designing safety systems for cars with AD technology, with non-traditional interiors, are other major challenges. In the context of the latter, ZF is already working with automotive interior specialist, Faurecia, for designing future car cabins that may be much more flexible than current layouts, yet safer as well.
INTELLIGENT CHASSIS TECHNOLOGY
Already an established leader in the area of automotive chassis technology development, ZF is now working on new, even more advanced solutions aimed at improving handling as well as safety. An important step in this direction is the development of ‘Integral Chassis Control’ (ICC), which connects individual chassis systems for improved driving dynamics. By connecting electronically-controlled steering, suspension and braking systems, the driving experience becomes more cohesive, consistent and safe.
During the event, ZF demonstrated the working of its ‘sMOTION’ technology, which utilises a motor pump unit integrated into the suspension unit at each end, with bi-directional actuators that allow the system to generate forces against the piston rod movement. This is extremely useful while going over a bump (or a pothole) at high speeds, with the system virtually eliminating body roll, pitch and bounce. When combined with sensors and LIDAR, sMOTION will also support autonomous driving.
The other major advancement in chassis technology is ZF’s new ‘Electromechanical Roll Control’ (ERC), which uses a 48 volt electric motor installed on the axle to equalise vehicle roll motion in less 0.3 seconds for improved cornering and better ride quality on bad roads. Similarly, ‘eLEVEL,’ ZF’s electro-hydraulic levelling technology uses actuators to alter ride height, which can make it easier for low-slung vehicles to cross obstacles on the road.
To sum up, ICC connects a car’s steering, damping and braking systems for significantly improved driving dynamics and safety.
INNOVATIVE ELECTRIC DRIVE SYSTEM
In the move to electrification, ZF has been working on advanced electric vehicle modules, and on its Vision Zero vehicle, showcased its new 150 kW electric axle drive system for EVs. The entire propulsion system, including the integrated electronics, is housed in a modular rear axle system called ‘mSTARS’ (modular semi-trailing arm rear suspension), which has been designed to make it easier for manufacturers to electrify high volume production vehicle platforms. As a solution, mSTARS provides the basis for a wide range of applications suitable for hybrid, battery-powered and even fuel-cell vehicles.
As a result of its unique integral link design and separate spring damper configuration, mSTARS frees up installation space between the rear wheels, allowing the fitment of ZF’s electric drive system, including the 150 kw drive unit (which houses the electric motor and a two-stage one-speed spur gear drive, a differential, and power electronics, along with control software) into the axle carrier, for a compact and efficient EV solution.
ZF claims that the mSTARS axle boasts a high level of driving dynamics, delivering the performance of more expensive multi-link axles and can even be combined with the company’s innovative new AKC active rear axle steering system for increased agility.
Furthermore, in line with its efforts to promote electro-mobility, ZF is also ready with ‘Dashboard,’ a new app that’s been added to the company’s Openmatics solutions portfolio, and which allows more effective energy management for EVs. With vehicle tracking, optimal route planning, vehicle sharing, availability of real-time usage information (including charge levels and time to charge), Dashboard allows for more effective electric vehicle fleet management.
ENHANCED SENSORS & SAFETY
A key challenge for semi- and fully-autonomous cars of the future will be to ‘see’ their surroundings better than human beings do, with 3D, 360-degree mapping of the surrounding environment. In its quest to enable vehicles to ‘See, Think and Act,’ ZF is leveraging the power of artificial intelligence and recently announced ProAI, an artificial intelligence ECU, which it’s developed in collaboration with NVIDIA. ZF’s advanced engineering teams are also developing high resolution radar and working on combining it with laser technology for 3D environment mapping.
For now, ZF is working on levels 2 and 3 of autonomous driving, and the company continues to refine and further enhance its ‘Highway Driving Assist’ system with new functions. However, until full, level 5 autonomous driving becomes a reality, drivers must remain focused and attentive while driving their vehicle. In this context, ZF has also developed a ‘Driver Distraction Assist’ and ‘Wrong-way Inhibit’ systems, designed to prevent accidents that happen due to lapses in attention and due to vehicles driving in the wrong direction. Both systems feature AI-powered mechanical systems that can intervene when they detect a potentially dangerous situation on the road, and take action to ensure occupant safety. Driver Distraction Assist uses a laser-based interior camera that monitors the driver’s head’s position in 3D and if detects that the driver is looking away from the road for too long, it provides audio-visual warnings. If those are ignored by the driver, the system reduces the power delivery and ultimately attempts to stop the car in a safe spot.
Similarly, the Wrong-way Inhibit system is capable of recognising an error when a driver attempts to enter a road from the wrong direction and first provides audio-visual warnings, and if those warnings are ignored, the system increases steering wheel resistance and finally brings the car to a complete halt and simultaneously activates the vehicle’s hazard lights to warn oncoming traffic. The system allows the driver to drive out of such danger zones along the edge of the road (if there is space) or if he shifts into reverse gear.
MOVING TOWARDS VISION ZERO
All of ZF’s technology initiatives described above are directly or indirectly aimed at achieving the company’s ‘Vision Zero’ objective. Vision Zero refers to zero accidents and zero emissions, which the company believes can be achieved with intelligent, connected and automated vehicles, which is why electric mobility, advanced driver assistance systems, autonomous driving and all-around digitalisation remain key focus areas for ZF. And with its capabilities for technical innovation and its all-around engineering expertise, ZF certainly seems all set to lead the way with smarter, safer, next-generation mobility solutions worldwide.
In Conversation with Peter Lake
During ZF’s global press event in Austria, we had an opportunity to interact with Peter Lake, Member of the Board of Management of ZF Friedrichshafen AG, who is responsible for ZF Corporate Market, ZF TRW Sales and Business Development, for the Asia-Pacific and South America regions.
Here are some excerpts from what Lake had to say on the key issues of automotive safety and technology developments from ZF.
ON VISION ZERO
It’s what this company [ZF] is about. That’s our vision, it’s what we’re focused on, it’s what we’re going to be investing in. It’s our compass – that’s the way we’re going. It’s a great tool to use both internally and externally, it’s an easy way of saying what we’re all about – we simply say everything we’re doing is about Vision Zero. And Vision Zero is as relevant for India as it is for anywhere else. It’s a journey. It’s not going to happen tomorrow, but it sets the course.
ON THE CHALLENGES IN THE ROAD TO VISION ZERO
Just the sheer realisation of that, because the implications are significant. Let’s just think about emissions. Developing modular, scalable powertrains that are suitable for each of those options [all kinds of hybrids and EVs], that is a challenge. How do you do it in an economic and sensible way, recognising that you don’t know what the shares [of each of those technologies] will be over time. Who knows, there could be a massive revolution in the market and suddenly battery electric vehicles may be at 50 % than 10 %, or something like that. So, you’ve got to have a product line that is robust to cater to those different possible scenarios.
The other area here is automated driving. The certainty is that it is going to come, but exactly what is the form, or what is the level, and exactly when, with sort of penetration? You have to be investing for the future, yes, but you don’t want to be investing too early or too late. Maybe investing too late is worse than investing too early, but if you invest too early, you have to wait for your returns and [your technology may end up being redundant] because technology is moving so fast!
ON THE CHALLENGES IN ELECTRIFICATION
There are three that resonate with me. The first one is regulation, and I would link with that, some of these city type discussions on whether we let diesels in or not. And the pace at which politicians move, because this is in large part a political issue as well. What is the rate at which politicians would see us develop electrification solutions – that is a key element, a key driver.
The second thing is more technical – it’s all about batteries, about battery life and range. I don’t think people are so concerned about battery life, but they are certainly concerned about driving range. What do we do with our iPhones every time we go somewhere? We try and find an electrical socket because we’re so paranoid about running out of power. So that’s the kind of mindset a driver has if he’s in a battery electric vehicle.
The third thing is infrastructure – initiatives to put charging stations in place. Currently, it is not as ubiquitous and as developed an infrastructure as that for gasoline, and that is going to be a key driver. There are massive implications associated with this [and] it certainly is a period of unprecedented change and uncertainty for the industry. But the uncertainty is more about the timing, rather than about whether electrification is coming or not.
Regarding affordability of electric vehicles, volumes can cure a lot of sins, and that’s frankly what it’s all about. As we see more and more of these vehicles produced, you can be a lot more cost effective. So, yes, it’s about volumes, which can help change the equation.
ON MAJOR IMPROVEMENTS IN SAFETY IN THE FUTURE
I think there are two major drivers that will lead to significant change. Imagine what you can do with all those sensors around the vehicle. So now, to deploy an airbag, you’re not waiting for a remote acceleration sensor to tell an ECU that an accident has already happened, so therefore fire the airbag. We will know when a collision is unavoidable and we’ll be able to take action earlier. And what does that mean for airbags? They might have to be in different places, or you fire them earlier, and you need bigger bags because they need to be filled for longer, and so there could be many subtle changes that could arise just as a result of that.
There might also be external airbags – and these are totally new. A really big one, across the whole side of an Audi, may actually mitigate significantly a side impact and the problems that potentially arise from that. So you may well see more of those.
One hypothesis is that the restraining system is going to be much more individually and seat focused. So maybe seatbelts aren’t [anchored] on the B-pillar. Who knows, maybe it’s four-point seatbelts. A lot more resettable type functionality, more active retractors, airbags in different places. More occupant monitoring, occupant detection. Right now, there may be more questions than answers!
5 Minutes with Suresh KV
During ZF’s global press event, we got a chance to have a quick chat with Suresh KV, President – ZF India, who spoke to us about ZF’s operations in India, the opportunities it has, and the challenges it faces. Here are some excerpts from what Suresh had to say to us.
ON BUSINESS OPPORTUNITIES FOR ZF IN INDIA, IN THE CV SEGMENT
If you look at the commercial vehicle segment, I feel that the market is moving towards AMT solutions [because it helps with driver comfort during long-distance travel for trucks, and also helps fuel
efficiency]. Also, if you look at suspension components, I feel that things like leaf springs will undergo a change in terms of the material to become lighter. ZF has developed fiber-reinforced plastic composites (FRP), for example, which weigh much less than steel for this application. We’re looking at those options but we’re still in the very early stages.
ON BUSINESS OPPORTUNITIES IN THE PASSENGER VEHICLES
On the passenger cars side, we’ve launched local production of clutches and Dual Mass Flywheels and I think these are things that car manufacturers will really look forward to, given the reliability of our products, reliability of the deliveries and our reputation as not only a technology deliverer but also an organisation that responds in time to our customers’ concerns or even their requirements for an improvement.
ON BUSINESS SYNERGIES CREATED BY ZF’S RECENT ACQUISITIONS
The acquisition of TRW globally has bolstered the growth story of ZF in India. We have one of the most mature JVs - Brakes India for braking products, and also an equally mature partnership with Rane TRW for Steering Systems and Safety Systems, including airbags and seatbelts. These businesses are set to grow exponentially, especially due to the new regulations set by the government.
ON SOME OF THE BIGGEST CHALLENGES FOR ZF IN INDIA
If we have to remain in the industry, we will have to have volumes that justify the investments that we’re making. What we always do is start with imported parts and then over a period of time we localise. When we do that, the initial costs – in terms of investments and materials – are high. But what is critical is, how we can find volumes that can help us take care of our initial investments. So what we’ve done is, find a lot of synergies in the manufacturing and operations side, across the organisation. So, for example, if the truck transmissions business is doing better than the clutches business, we are able to move resources from one product line to another, which helps us.
ON POSSIBLE EXPANSION OF ZF’S FACILITIES IN INDIA
We have got two major facilities – one is in Pune, the other is in Coimbatore, where we have already been investing on machines. The good news is that we have land and buildings available at both our facilities, but for now, we’re looking at making best possible utilisation of our current resources before investing in further expansion. When it comes to increasing revenues and volumes, there are pertinent investments that we’re making as and when required.
TEXT: Sameer Kumar