A self-driving shuttle built by automotive supplier ZF Friedrichshafen will reach public roads soon, the company announced at the 2019 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.
ZF secured an order from the French mobility service Transdev, which will operate the e.Go PeopleMover in France and Germany.
The first e.Go shuttles delivered to Transdev will be operated by a driver. Eventually the vehicles will be outfitted to operate on their own. A driver will be present only in case of emergency.
Self-driving shuttles are a popular topic at CES as the transportation industry prepares to bring the vehicles to the public. Many see them as the most practical application of autonomous technology currently available.
“We are convinced that public transport will be the first place where real autonomous services will be developed and available for the general public,” said Yann Leriche, chief executive of Transdev North America.
1 million miles
Transdev operates a global fleet of autonomous shuttles that so far have transported 3.5 million people and traveled 1 million miles.
“This partnership with ZF and e.GO is a great opportunity to enrich our existing mobility solutions with new autonomous vehicles in order to offer the best solutions to our clients,” Leriche said.
ZF did not specify how many shuttles Transdev ordered. It intends to build 400 of the shuttles in Germany this year. Executives expect the company to build more than 10,000 by 2025.
“Any booked business is always a big deal,” said Jeremy Carlson, a mobility analyst with IHS Markit. “It’s a realistic effort to introduce this technology in the shuttle space.”
ZF is developing a wide array of self-driving systems for passenger and commercial use.
It will build a last-mile delivery vehicle called the Innovation Van, with the Level 4 autonomous capability to drive itself unless taken over by a human, by 2020.
The company has also demonstrated its Class 8 heavy-duty Innovation Truck that can deposit and pick up trailers autonomously in enclosed environments such as a shipping depot.
Elsewhere at CES, Daimler Trucks North America said it was adding hands-free, foot-free driving features to its Freightliner Cascadia big rig this year. It also is investing heavily in self-driving trucks and plans to start commercializing the technology with a decade.
In Las Vegas, ZF offered short rides in an autonomous ride-hailing vehicle, a modified Mercedes-Benz Metris outfitted with ZF sensors and other self-driving components.
The van is summoned via a smartphone app and delivers passengers to pre-designated destinations. It has no steering wheel or pedals, though a driver is present and can operate the vehicle with a joystick if necessary.
The vehicle ran in a small parking lot, fenced off and painted with clear lane markings. It can navigate turns and stop for pedestrians in its path.
The ride is rudimentary: The electric steering system groans; handling and braking are jerky. Engineers said the concept works better with an electric powertrain like that in the e.Go. But the demonstration provides a glimpse into the future that ZF envisions.
“We want to be a driver of the new kind of mobility,” said Wolf-Henning Scheider, chief executive of ZF. “It’s our vision to create a clean, safe, comfortable and affordable future.”
At the heart of the company’s plans is its ProAI family of on-board supercomputers. ProAI uses artificial intelligence to determine the best self-driving route. ZF constructs hardware for the units. Processing chips are provided by technology giant Nvidia.
The self-driving delivery van is equipped with ProAI 2.0, to be built by the end of this year. The ride-hailing van uses the upgraded ProAI 3.0 for additional capability. The e.Go PeopleMover will also have ProAI 3.0 when Transdev takes initial deliveries.
Eventually, the e.Go will use a new version called ProAI Robothink that debuted at CES. Scheider called Robothink the most powerful AI-capable supercomputer in the mobility industry.
Where the first-generation ProAI, unveiled at CES two years ago, is capable of processing 1 TeraOps – or one trillion calculations per second – Robothink can handle up to 600 TeraOps. Scheider said the unit, smaller than a cereal box, is equivalent to carrying seven PC computers in the trunk.
ZF has invested heavily to build its autonomous technology. The company dedicated $2.5 billion to research and development in 2017 and has increased that number every year since.
But the company is not yet in a rush to earn revenue from these products. Nearly 100 percent of its revenue is still sourced from mechanical components such as transmissions, steering and drive units.
The move to autonomous technology is a long-term play, Scheider said. He said he does not know when self-driving technology will make up a majority of the company’s business.
“I only know that we have to run, run, run,” he said.