Safety Where cars learn to drive

Tomorrow’s mobility solutions are being developed on the highways of the U.S. State of Michigan and in the simulated streets of Mcity. We pay a visit to the new world center of automated driving.

The big GMC SUV is driving along at a sprightly pace when suddenly a pedestrian walks out into the road, directly in front of the car. If his fate depended on human reactions alone, he wouldn’t stand a chance – he’s too close to the vehicle. But before the driver can even start to respond, the car performs an emergency stop and comes to a standstill. The pedestrian himself appears unconcerned. That’s no surprise: he is, after all, just a dummy. Even so, Fred the Dummy is making an important contribution to the development of future mobility solutions. When the technicians alongside the test track hit a switch, Fred moves smoothly back to the curb, ready for the next test.

A car is racing toward Fred the Dummy at 35 mph! But Active Braking Assist intervenes, preventing a nasty accident.

New U.S. headquarters

Welcome to Michigan, one of the leading centers for the development of self-driving vehicles. The federal state is one of only four in the U.S. where it is legal to test automated vehicles on public highways. ZF TRW has already run many tests on the highways around Detroit, says Andy Whydell, Head of Systems Product Planning at ZF TRW. “We deliberately moved to Michigan and set up our new head office for North America in Livonia,” confirms Dr. Franz Kleiner, Head of the Active & Passive Safety Technology division and ZF Board member responsible for the region.

Autonomous driving will likely evolve through five distinct stages. At present, ZF TRW supplies subsystems and sensors for the first two stages, which focus primarily on safety and driving comfort. Typical examples include adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping assistance. During these two stages, drivers must still keep their hands on the steering wheel. But as automated driving evolves through stages 3-5, the increasingly intelligent interaction of sensors, control units and vehicle systems means that vehicles will gradually take full control, starting with highway driving.

From semi-automated to fully automated driving

Andy Whydell, Head of Systems Product Planning, ZF TRW

Technologies currently under development at ZF’s Farmington Hills, Northville and Livonia facilities are an integral part of this process. “In Michigan, we’re designing cameras, electronic braking and steering systems and other safety electronics products, such as the Safety Domain ECU,” explains Whydell.

While these products are already having a positive impact on vehicle safety, they will play an even more critical role in the vehicles of the future. “It’s more practical to start developing the technologies you need for tomorrow’s self-driving vehicles as components for today’s production cars, because then, once it’s time to take the next step, you can combine subsystems that have already been field-tested,” explains Andy Whydell. This is easier than developing a complete autonomous vehicle from scratch and then attempting to market it.

Video: ZF TRW is carrying out in-depth testing in the simulated streets of Mcity. Find out more.

Hotspot for systems development

ZF’s new head office for North America is based in Livonia

“Michigan is developing one of the world’s ultimate high-tech products: the car,” underlines Michigan’s Governor Rick Snyder. “This is a huge opportunity for young talents who want to help change our entire culture and way of life. Michigan certainly sees this as an opportunity – you can feel the resulting energy in the state’s industries and throughout Detroit.” Thomas Wenzel, Head of Technology and Product Communication at ZF, agrees: “The concentration of talent and demand for engineers is turning Michigan into a hotspot for ZF TRW’s systems development work.”

Recently established by the University of Michigan, the first specialized proving ground for self-driving and connected cars represents a major step toward this goal. Mcity, a 10-million-dollar facility set up at the University of Michigan Mobility Transformation Center (MTC), was opened in the summer of 2015. As an affiliate sponsor, ZF is one of the founding members of this public-private consortium. At Mcity, all of the challenges that regularly confront drivers in urban and suburban environments are densely concentrated in a relatively small area of just 32 acres.

Why Michigan?

ZF TRW’s research and production facilities are located within the catchment area of several highly respected universities: Michigan State University in East Lansing, the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, and Wayne State University in Detroit. They all top the national league tables for engineering, and all qualify as Research 1 institutions – the highest class of research-driven universities. Each of these universities is carrying out applied research work that is expected to contribute to the development of self-driving vehicles. A project at Wayne State University is currently investigating how much communication is required between vehicles in order for cars to drive safely in urban traffic – the researchers have been using cars belonging to the campus police force as test vehicles. Over a period of years, extensive trials in the area around Northville and Ann Arbor have involved 3,000 cars capable of communicating with the transport infrastructure and with each other – another key aspect of automated driving.

Mcity as development accelerator

“For validation purposes, sensors need short distances and consistent driving behavior, which is why we position test features so close together along the test track,” explains Dr. Peter Sweatman, Founding Director of Mcity. Because it is possible to drive sensor systems through this dense urban environment hundreds of times over, investors are expecting to halve development times; vehicle designers and developers can look forward to an accelerated learning process.

But Mcity is not just used for testing vehicle technologies. Researchers are also using the facility to explore such crucial issues as insurance liability, cyber security and the legal aspects of autonomous driving. “Safety is an extremely important consideration – first among equals, you might say,” adds Sweatman. Numerous companies from the auto industry are taking advantage of Mcity. Ford Motor Co. announced that it would be the first company to test fully autonomous vehicles at the facility. ZF TRW is busy testing safety technologies on the simulated city streets. So Fred still has plenty of work to do!

Photos: Polaris/laif (1), Illustration: ZF

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