CRUNCHING NUMBERS | Transport News -ZF demonstrates its strengths in a brave new world of electronic autonomous control systems.

 ZF demonstrates its strengths in a brave new world of electronic autonomous control systems. 

In Australia we tend to think of ZF as a maker of transmissions, which is something of an understatement. This German giant operates in some 230 different locations, employs a workforce of 146,000 personnel, and is one of the world’s largest automotive suppliers. Its research and development programmes extend into rail as well as road transport, plus power generation using wind turbines and electronics.

At the IAA Expo, Wolf-Henning Scheider, the CEO of ZF Friedrichshafen AG, announced the company would invest 12 billion Euros ($19.4 billion AUD) over the next five years in the future technologies of e-mobility and autonomous driving alone.

With the headline “Smart Logistics” at IAA 2018, the company has bundled its technologies and – through automation, networking and electrification – has created what it believes are attractive solutions for the complete logistics chain. It’s a firm believer that autonomous driving will prevail more quickly in the commercial vehicle sector due to reduced vehicle operating costs, while also helping to improve safety and efficiency.

ZF’s two latest world premieres – the Innovation Truck and the Terminal Yard Tractor – show how the company is responding to key freight challenges. These vehicles can autonomously manoeuvre swap bodies, trailers and containers in company terminal yards and container ports. Additionally, they can help to reduce accidents and property damage and address the constantly growing shortage of skilled workers in the logistics industry.

The smart logistics approach from ZF also covers zero local emission drivetrains for all vehicle classes. The company has received orders for more than 1000 of its AxTrax AVE electric portal axles for city bus operations, and these will soon be contributing to 60 million zero-emission passenger kilometres each year in cities such as Los Angeles, London or Stuttgart. 

ZF is also accelerating electrification in other commercial vehicle segments. The electric axle drive system for light commercial vehicles will go into volume production in mid-2019 and the company has received a volume-production order for its new CeTrax electric central drive, which is suitable for both buses and trucks as well as terminal shunting tractors.

Heavy truck applications for electrification are also under the spotlight, with a field test of the TraXon Hybrid commercial vehicle transmission in association with DAF Trucks. With all-electric manoeuvring, as well as numerous hybrid functions, the operating cost benefit can be a potential fuel saving of between 5 and  7 percent.

The ZF Innovation Truck can handle the tasks of lifting, shifting and stacking containers without a driver.  After a vehicle enters the premises, the driver can exit the vehicle, activate the autonomous driving mode and then take a break. The ZF Innovation Truck will find its own way to the target position driving autonomously and electrically, whereupon it loads a new container.

Controlled by the central computer ZF ProAI, the ZF Innovation Truck is programmed to manage this quickly, precisely, and with the maximum possible safety. In addition, the truck is not influenced by stress, fatigue, distractions, darkness or adverse weather conditions.

Whilst ZF ProAI is the Innovation Truck’s brain, other ZF technologies in this trial include the active electro-hydraulic ReAX commercial vehicle steering system and the TraXon Hybrid automatic transmission system. The latter is characterised by a modular integrated electric motor that allows local emission-free driving. Its orientation and vision is controlled by a camera-based and laser-supported sensor setup, completing it with a GPS system.

The extended sensor set additionally enables the Terminal Yard Tractor to keep an eye on its surroundings. Here, the central computer ZF ProAI coordinates the functions of longitudinal and lateral guidance: This enables the shuttle vehicle to take the trailer from the truck and manoeuvre it to the ramp for loading and discharging. Once this has been completed, it takes the trailer back to the truck.

The advantages of autonomous yard tractors shifting containers or trailers in an electronically programmed environment is of particular appeal when working dockside, given that many of the overhead cranes are already capable of working autonomously. By removing personnel on foot from the area, it makes for a much safer working environment.

Whether it will work well on the open road, is, in PowerTorque’s view, a different case scenario, with concern over the unbridled enthusiasm of some sectors of the industry to introduce vehicle platooning.

In a platoon, two or more trucks drive closely together to create a convoy of trucks. This reduces the aerodynamic drag for the trucks behind the lead truck, which, in turn, can reduce fuel consumption by up to 20 percent.

Since the project involves trucks from numerous manufacturers merging together to form a convoy, standards for networking are critical. ZF’s current portfolio has the technology to enable platooning capabilities, including camera and radar sensors, the ZF ProAI supercomputer, the ReAx electrohydraulic commercial vehicle steering system, as well as the transmission system.

The reduction in distance between trucks in a convoy is possible because the networked vehicles can function without driver reaction times. The trucks are designed to brake and steer while synchronised in real time with the actions of the lead truck; however, they do not drive blind. Thanks to sensor information and autonomous driving functions, they can also stay in the lane even if the lead vehicle unintentionally goes over the lane markings.

The European and North American research programmes investigating platooning haven’t yet cottoned on to the premise that Australian road trains using one prime mover to haul three or four trailers are much more efficient, and don’t rely on a potentially unreliable wireless interface to get down the street. They also benefit from having a human lifeform present to provide an oversight of all that happens, or might happen, during the trip.

Technology supporters need to redefine the role of a driver from simply being “one who drives”. The skill set necessary to be an experienced transport operator covers loading and unloading requirements, safety, continuous evaluation of other road users, and the ability to predict in advance, whatever is likely to occur in the vehicle’s vicinity. A remote tyre pressure monitoring system will alert the operators back at base that a tyre has delaminated or punctured − but it’s not going to jack up the axle and replace the offending rubber. Neither is the autonomous control system going to think and react in time to avoid an impact if a mob of kangaroos is heading across the paddock for the road ahead.

The importance of reduced or zero emissions, plus the limitation of noise pollution, are common sense solutions for inner city transport. But they will only be implemented by governments that recognise climate change and act to benefit the environment. The current political environment in Australia −with a refusal to implement tighter emissions controls or recognise the need for action − simply defies logic.

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