Z F Friedrichshafen Unveils Autonomously Driven Van At C.E.S. In Las Vegas

Getting taken for a ride in Las Vegas isn’t news – unless you’re talking about the one we got taken for today at the Consumer Electronics Show this morning. We at Daluxe.com sat in the passenger seat of a van with no steering wheel, brakes, gearshift or accelerator, pushed a button reading “Hotel,” the machine lurched to life and to the “hotel” we sped. Top speed? About 10 miles an hour.zf dashboard

ZF Friedrichshafen, a German auto parts supplier, unveiled their “ProAI RoboThink” software at the show in the van, with the stated aim of one day powering what they call “level five” driving – cars, trucks and vans on the road being programmed by the general populace to get to the mall, to work and back, to the club, to Home Depot, the works. This isn’t a little startup, either – the company has a global workforce of 146,000 with approximately 230 locations in some 40 countries.

Look! No pedals! (This is the driver’s side.)zf driver's footspace

What impressed us most about the software was the sheer tonnage of (hidden) cameras and sensors all around the vehicle to anticipate any possible obstacle – even the roof had a camera so the tops of bridges one drives under are noted by the software, and according adjustments are made.

Of course, autonomous driving isn’t new, and our own experience testing such vehicles has been iffy – our test Tesla X 100 D took an exit we hadn’t asked for a year and a half ago while cruising a freeway, and veered at a cyclist coming in the opposite direction at another time.

But a year and a half in the software world is gargantuan, and there are millions being invested by a variety of companies in aid of being first-to-market with a bug-free autonomous driving experience.zf van

Daimler Trucks North America, for example, is massively investing in self-driving trucks, with plans to start commercializing the technology with a decade. It’s also adding hands-free, foot-free driving features to its Freightliner Cascadia big rig this year.

The big debate, naturally, doesn’t revolve around wrong exits taken – it’s human life, in particular human injuries and deaths. Until the public wraps its mind around the fact that zero injuries or deaths isn’t going to happen, at least not for the foreseeable future, autonomous driving has a big problem on its hands.

One ZF rep made a good point, though, saying that elevators were once solely operated by hand – but now they are entirely automated and people have no qualms about trusting machinery not to drop them to their deaths 40 floors below. Of course, elevators don’t have to travel in any direction but up and down, don’t go faster than 20 MPH, and don’t have to worry about drunken/impaired/incompetent other elevators.

Another compelling aspect of ZF’s software is that it nips mechanical problems at their bud without waiting for “symptoms.” Why should we guess when our brake pads or headlight lamps will need to be replaced? This software can tell you exactly where you are with regard to wear and tear on engine components. You can replace important parts before “Check engine” or a break down, and that goes for tires, too.

How it works:

ZF ProAI RoboThink, the high-performance supercomputer for autonomous driving, is designed to process vast amounts of sensor data, translate it into a coherent picture and derive the right commands for the vehicle in a split second.  These commands are then implemented by connected ZF systems that enable vehicle motion control and enhanced safety – including chassis, drive, steering system, brakes or occupant safety systems.

ZF also networks its intelligent mechanical systems with its cloud-based platform for mobility services, making it possible to integrate functions across all kinds of providers, for instance for ride-hailing, delivery services and fleet management, like so:zf_autonomous_ride-hailing_04-1200x900

The vehicle software can be updated via the cloud – you don’t have to take the car into the service station to have it done.

We were impressed (with the usual dose of “We’ll see,”) and look forward to what ZF Friedrichshafen further brings us in 2019.