Live and learn Universities help ZF grow

By partnering with academic leaders and using real-world data, university research programs help move the industry forward.

Trash floating through space: It’s an issue that scientists have been worrying about since the 1970s. Not only does space debris (commonly referred to as “space junk”) increase potential danger to the International Space Station, but to all space vehicles. According to NASA, as of 2013 there were more than 500,000 pieces of debris travelling at speeds up to 17,500 mph – that’s nearly 23 times the speed of sound.

With so much junk flying around in space, satellites collecting valuable data for scientists are in danger of a catastrophic collision. So how can they be protected? Thanks to algorithms, satellite operators can now predict when a catastrophic event may occur and course correct to avoid it.

Dan Milot, vice president braking system applications for ZF’s Division A, conducts research with universities to expand research and development.

Developed by an aerospace professor with a background in automotive, the benefits of this algorithm have traveled from space, to the streets. In this case, catastrophic events – and the means to avoid them – are what bring the two together.

“He applied the principle of a satellite sensing and avoiding trash in space and brought that into automotive,” said Dan Milot, longtime friend of the aerospace professor. “Using the same mathematics, we can apply this to a vehicle rolling over.”

“A rollover is a catastrophic event,” Dan explains. “I have an object, which is the vehicle. If I look at the object and what it’s doing, can I predict whether or not it will roll over?”

As ZF works to progress advanced safety and autonomous driving, it’s being assisted by a talented team of professors and students to solve some of the most intricate problems facing the industry. ZF’s research partnerships with local universities are propelling the company into the future of automotive safety.

Setting the pace for advanced safety

The university collaborations began more than a decade ago with TRW (now ZF’s Division A, responsible for active and passive safety development) in North America and has run the gamut of algorithm development, from interior cameras that could help sense out-of-position passengers to forward-facing cameras for the safety and autonomous driving functions now being installed in vehicles, and full circle to interior cameras and steering wheel sensors for studying the state of the driver.

Bob Newton, senior engineering supervisor, Optics Engineering for Division A, has been involved in various research projects on the University of Michigan’s Ann Arbor and Dearborn campuses.

“Collaborating with universities allows us to further state-of-the-art automotive technologies and explore what may be possible in the future,” Bob said. “Engagement with the university teams gives us access to additional resources and is a great way to extend the innovation pipeline.”

The company funded its first university research partnership with University of Michigan–Ann Arbor Professor Huei Peng. Dan, Huei and Heui’s former colleague set out to examine worst-case maneuver simulations to identify factors that caused vehicles to roll over – ultimately helping to lead to the development of Vehicle Stability Control (VSC), ZF TRW’s version of Electronic Stability Control. Results of the VSC project prompted further studies that helped shape the future of Electronic Stability Control (ESC) and U.S. Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards.

“The opportunity to engage in university research projects provides great value for us,” Bob explains. “Our engineering teams are primarily engaged in ensuring that our customer commitments are fulfilled and that we are providing the best technical solutions and quality products. The goal: to stay ahead of the curve – and save lives. By giving our partners in higher education opportunities to look into certain areas, they can discover things we might not have had the time to explore ourselves,” Dan said. “It’s like an extension of our research and development.”

Future vision

UM-Dearborn Professor Yi Lu Murphey’s work is inspired by solving problems that face drivers and society.

How can a camera read a traffic sign and help drivers on their daily commute? How does a car detect when someone operating it is drowsy or distracted and needs a wake-up call? These questions and many more have been posed to the College of Engineering team at the University of Michigan Dearborn (UM-Dearborn), and they never shy away from the challenges they receive from ZF.

Professor Yi Lu Murphey has led each of these fascinating research studies, motivated and inspired by the opportunity to make a difference in the world of mobility.

“It is a great collaborative relationship,” Yi Lu said. “And when we pool resources and work together, we can help solve some of the most important issues facing drivers and society.”

Yi Lu’s team is actively working on two projects with ZF: A sophisticated “driver wellness” HMI, as well as advanced sensing methods to enhance a camera’s perspective around a vehicle.

The capabilities of Yi Lu’s team instill confidence in Bob and have allowed him to increase the strengths of his own team with the expertise of the students at UM-Dearborn. The students bring energy, unique perspectives and passion to each project, creating a refreshing atmosphere to work in. “You’re exposed to a different type of environment,” Bob explained.

“You get insight into what the professors are thinking about, which often times is a little different than what we tend to focus on day-to-day,” Dan points out. “They’re generally working on things we would like to work on or maybe we haven’t thought about but are complementary to what we’re working on.”

A new generation

Many other benefits ensue above and beyond the research results.
“It is so important for us to develop the engineers of tomorrow for the automotive and other industries,” Tony England, dean of UM-Dearborn’s College of Engineering, explains. “The demand for engineering talent is outstripping the supply, and this is a great career for students to consider.”
And this holds true for those working on the ZF research projects. All three of the graduate students who worked on a three-year UM-Dearborn research project under Professor Taehyun Shim found jobs – one of them even works at ZF.

The limitless road ahead

We all love new technology – it helps make our jobs easier, stay in touch with loved ones and keep us safe on the roads. ZF and its partners in higher education remain in pursuit of new and better life-changing, life-saving technologies. The sky – or perhaps more accurately, space – is the limit for researchers and students looking at the fascinating world of mobility ahead. ZF will continue pushing boundaries in the future of advanced safety, autonomous driving and everything in between.

ZF is committed to various universities across the world. The company's work focuses on both leading universities and local university cooperations, including research cooperations, such as the one at the University of Michigan, and extends all the way to classic human resources marketing in order to win future talents. Furthermore, there are endowed professors like Professor Dr. phil. Maximilian Schwalm from Aachen in Germany, who provides ZF with important impulses of automated driving together with his colleague Professor Dr. Ing. Lutz Eckstein.

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