Waymo, Uber and even General Motors have their eyes on a day when self-driving cars are common sights. German auto supplier ZF Friedrichshafen has bigger plans.
It recently demonstrated a heavy-duty truck that can pick up and deposit cargo by itself.
The ZF Innovation Truck, a Class 8 truck equipped with autonomous technology, carried a trailer to a loading zone, unhitched on its own and drove away. It then backed into another space and hitched to a different trailer before driving off. The entire process took less than seven minutes.
The demonstration was part of ZF Technology Day, an annual showcase hosted by the company at its headquarters in Friedrichshafen, Germany.
Increasingly the company is developing components for electric and autonomous trucks in what it describes as a bid to lead the future of transportation.
In recent years ZF has acquired companies such as Lidar-producer Ibeo Automotive Systems and Michigan-based electronics specialists TRW Automotive. The supplier, which has never built a vehicle of its own, now has the ability to develop nearly an entire connected truck.
In addition to futuristic technology such as the driverless truck, ZF introduced a number of components that are slated for production soon:
- Full electric power steering will be available for commercial vehicles by 2022.
- The autonomous-friendly supercomputer called ProAI 2.0 will debut for commercial vehicles in 2021.
- A cabin suspension system called eCALM uses electronic dampers for a smooth ride and could be produced in 2020.
- Testing for a new version of the TraxOn automated manual transmission, specifically for hybrid-electric trucks, will begin in 2019.
The product expected to hit public roads soonest is the CeTrax drive unit for electric delivery vans, buses and trucks. It has integrated electric motors, and production is slated for the second quarter of 2019.
The company believes the integrated axle and electrified components that make up the drive unit “can write the next chapter of public transport,” said Frederik Staedtler, head of commercial vehicle technology at ZF.
In order to push the mission forward ZF increased investment in research and development to more than $2.5 billion in 2017, an increase of 15 percent over 2016.
ZF will increase its R&D budget further in 2018, the company said in March.
Starting with Shuttles
ZF also announced that it would contribute its range of electric products toward an autonomous mobility vehicle called the e.GO Mover.
The shuttle-like vehicle, a joint venture between ZF and German electric vehicle startup e.GO Mobile, can be used for commercial deliveries or urban ride-hailing.
The e.GO Mover will use electric axles, brakes, steering components, powertrains and Lidar sensors from ZF. The entire assembly runs through the ProAI system.
The companies have contracts to operate the e.GO Mover in 72 cities and expect to build 400 of the shuttles in 2019. Initial models will be operated by a driver with autonomous versions to follow.
Shuttles are ideal for autonomous technology because they can operate on a defined grid or specific route. They can also be used for multiple purposes — the e.GO Mover is built on a “skateboard” base that allows customers to fit their own body, depending on the intended use.
A driverless shuttle is currently operating in Las Vegas. Toyota plans to produce its own autonomous shuttled called the e-Palette for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
ZF and e.GO Mobile hope the vehicles will take off. The companies expect demand for shuttles like the e.GO Mover to reach as many as 1 million units by 2025.
Ushering in an Autonomous Age
ZF’s effort to shepherd electric and autonomous technology into commercial vehicles highlights the role that automotive suppliers hope to play in a changing industry.
“All the component makers are really getting into that game,” said Antti Lindstrom, a commercial vehicle analyst for IHS Markit. “Right now seems like a new dawn for them.”
Bendix and Wabco are developing advanced safety features such as air disc brakes and active steering assist that they believe will lead to fully automated vehicles down the line.
Others are hoping to engineer the entire autonomous framework of commercial vehicles.
Bosch has partnerships with Daimler Trucks and Nikola Motor to develop autonomous systems, while Meritor has an agreement with Peterbilt. Continental, best known for making wheels and tires, is launching a pilot program for its own driverless urban shuttle.
ZF’s automated features are available across a range of truck classes and can also be retrofitted onto older, existing vehicles.
The company believes its range of products gives it a leg up on the competition.
“I think we are the only supplier in the world that has steering, braking, the e-powertrain and the damping systems in one hat,” said Wolf-Henning Scheider, chief executive of ZF.
That mindset helps suppliers understand the vehicle from nose to tail instead of one part at a time, Lindstrom said.
Work trucks are better suited than passenger cars for autonomous technology, which works best in contained and predictable areas such as shipping yards and logistics depots, Scheider said.
Trucking companies will equip their fleets with advanced components when the total cost of ownership comes down, he said at Technology Day.
The products that ZF will offer are more expensive up front but will quickly pay for themselves with fuel savings, improved safety and optimized routes — sometimes within a year.
Scheider said that trucking companies will soon be willing to take the plunge.
“The business case is easily made,” he said.