About the future and fascination of driverless driving


(Published in The Produktkulturmagazin issue 2 2016)

The automobile industry’s latest hot topic are autonomous vehicles. Will machines soon take over control entirely, reducing drivers to mere passengers, or will the new technology open up space in terms of time and freedom? As one of the world’s largest automotive, ZF Fried-richshafen AG is shaping the development of driverless vehicles decisively. The firm provides the full range of sensors, processors, HMI and intelligent mechanical systems, which build the basis of automated driving. We spoke to the head of research and development Dr. Harald Naunheimer, about the opportunities and risks involved in the autonomous driving experience.

Dr Naunheimer, how can we imagine the future of automated driving to which ZF contributes significantly? Will soon self-driving cars roam the streets, while the occupants busy their head and hands with other things?

Dr Harald Naunheimer: Future mobility will be designated by greater safety, comfort, relief and efficiency. In this regard, automated driving will have a substantial input, yet it will not be realised overnight but gradually instead. Our role is to supply sensor systems for adaptive cruise control, intelligent control systems and mechatronic actuators such as brakes, steering and suspension systems. Semi-automated driving, i.e. a vehicle that takes over the longitudinal and transverse guidance, is already available in the market. The focus, however, is on the driver. Whenever a complex or rather repetitive situation arises – as in a traffic jam, on monotonous roads or with complex manoeuvers – the driver shall be disburdened from driving by autonomous features. Until we will see entirely driverless, fully autonomous vehicles on the road in all traffic situations more time will pass.

ZF describes technology that can ‘see, think, and act’. In which manner are your systems already at work behind the scenes?

Dr H. N.: To equip a car with senses and to teach it what to do is an extremely fascinating task. Automated driving functions must take the right decisions in real time. Radar and camera systems record meticulously what happens on the road and all around the car. An electronic control unit uses this information to calculate ideal manoeuvers and signals the actuators which then steer, brake and drive autonomously. All these components are available today for cars in serial production.

Security is a key issue in this context. The active assistance systems are already well advanced. Which are the next steps to move from a partially to a fully automated vehicle?

Dr H. N.: Safety is essentially the purpose of automated driving for us – both the protection of occupants as well as the safety of other road users. We are working hard to combine current concepts such as motorway assistant, automatic emergency braking and emergency steering manoeuvers in one conclusive system. The decisive factor is the development of sensors and actuators. The higher the maturity level, the better one can monitor the interior, the areas close and those far, analyse the information and process it. With maturity, meaning reliability even in complex situations, the assistance systems merge with higher functions.

In your ‘Concept Cockpit’, special attention was paid to the communication between man and machine. Please tell us what that is about.

Dr H. N.: Men will only trust the car with driving if they feel absolutely secure. For this trust to grow, we need a reliable and unambiguous communication between man and machine. Furthermore, during the next stages of automated driving, drivers are required to take the helm again at any time after a prior warning. Therefore the vehicle must be able to ask the driver clearly to intervene. We have already presented several solutions for this such as touch screens with haptic feedback, a camera-based face recognition to monitor the driver’s attention, or active seat belts, which serve as an additional means of communication. Via high frequency, vehement pulsation for example, even the belt signals the driver emphatically that his action is required.

With the ‘Advanced Urban Vehicle’ you created a concept car with autonomic functions for the city. Which requirements are to be mastered in an urban environment specifically?

Dr H. N.: The urban area, which entails pedestrians and cyclists, is certainly more complex than motorways and roads built in a similar fashion. Therefore it will take some time until we will drive in the city autonomously. With the Advanced Urban Vehicle, we present first steps in that direction. Through intelligent connection of powertrain, chassis and driver assistance systems, comfort, safety and efficiency in city traffic can be significantly increased. Examples are remotely controlled automatic parking or efficiency and comfort functions that gather and process information from the cloud. Thanks to its electric drive, the test vehicle is locally emission-free and moreover extremely agile and nimble as its new front axle allows for a steering angle of up to 75 degrees.

Which challenges of autonomous driving lay ahead? How about insurance law or data security of vehicles connected in the cloud for example?

Dr H. N.: Apart from the safety of occupants and road users, the car of the future as part of a connected world must be absolutely data secure, of course. Technologically, there are barely any hurdles in the way of automated driving. The path is trodden. This means the systems’ maturity will increase rapidly, they will gradually take over driving in certain situations. Thus, functions, availability and ultimately market penetration will increase rapidly. That is why the question of how fast and where innovations hit the roads first in the world, is particularly dependent on policies and the clarification of legal as well as ethical issues.

Google, Apple and other IT companies are busy developing autonomous vehicles. What is your strategy in this new competitive environment?

Dr H. N.: The IT companies put pressure on the auto industry, they want to open the car for the internet world. In the medium term, often this is not about trying to build and sell cars but there is a paradigm shift happening in the automobile industry. Investments into connected cars equipped with sophisticated IT can hardly be handled alone. The auto industry is therefore increasingly working with other actors outside the industry. At the same time, projects such as the Google Car enhance the public perception of autonomous driving tremendously. With our technologies, we will decisively shape the path towards fully autonomous driving within the next ten years. We will offer technology to enable automated driving functions across all vehicle segments, because only through high market penetration it can make a real difference to overall road safety.

How will the car’s independence in the future affect its exterior and interior design? Which solutions exist with regard to the interior, i.e. when it comes to the arrangement of the seats?

Dr H. N.: Automated driving will offer a very different driving experience to the one we are used to. In certain situations, the driver, as soon as he no longer needs to monitor the system permanently, and passenger can turn to activities other than driving. The new possibilities of utilising travel time will result in new interior concepts eventually but the next stages of development are rather evolutionary. We have developed a steering wheel for example which the driver simply collapses into the dashboard while driving automatically and thus gains space for other activities or simply can lean back and relax. However, these novel design options also pose new demands on occupant protection. We are working on those intensely as our roof airbag shows. It not just enables more flexibility in interior design but also protects the vehicle’s occupants, as well as conventional front airbags housed in the steering wheel or the dashboard.

From a very human point of view: How do you keep the joy of driving and the feeling of freedom alive in a vehicle that thinks and acts autonomously?

Dr H. N.: If one is completely honest, driving in everyday traffic is not only joy. Traffic jams on the way to work are not uncommon and even rides through construction sites, tunnels or monotonous stretches of motorway are not always pleasant. In these stressful or unpleasant situations, we wish to assist motorists with automated driving functions. The driver thus gains new freedom as he or she is free to deal with other things than steering, accelerating and braking while driving. However, the choice of driving mode, whether manual or automated, will always be the driver’s alone.

Personally, what is the car of your dreams of the future?

Dr H. N.: My dream car of the future is absolutely secure, efficient and fully connected. It relieves me where driving makes for rather little joy, but still gives me great driving pleasure whenever I sit behind the steering wheel.

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Dr Harald Naunheimer is head of the Research and Development department of ZF Friedrichshafen AG since 2009. He joined the company in 2001 as head of application development for a car transmission. In his current position, Dr. Naunheimer oversees more than 1,000 specialists. ZF developers focus on the issues of future efficiency, safety and automated driving.

Picture credits © ZF Friedrichshafen AG

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