Sensors in the car When vehicles learn to see

In highly specialized plants, ZF produces advanced safety cameras for passenger cars and trucks. These systems support current driver assistance functions. In the future, they may become an important component of autonomous vehicles.

Prior to entering the innermost depths of the ZF plant in Peterlee (United Kingdom) you must undergo a transformation by donning a special coat, hair net, anti-static shoes and gloves. Only then can you enter what we call the ‘clean room’. The final steps in the production process of cameras for passenger cars and trucks occur in this very room.

Quality assurance actions are universal in the plant. And for good reason: The optical systems that are developed in Peterlee are not intended for taking holiday photos but help to enable lane keeping or automatic emergency braking assistance. Precision and reliability are critical requirements for these features. “It is our job to produce these technologies not only in large quantities, but also to adhere to the highest possible quality standards,” emphasizes Robin Finley, plant manager of ZF Peterlee.

Experience with safety technologies

The quality of the individual production steps is checked regularly.

In addition to Anting, China and Marshall, USA, Peterlee is one of the three ZF plants worldwide that produce these particular vehicle cameras. The production of safety-related technologies is a tradition here; production of electronic control units and sensors for airbags began in Peterlee many years before the first camera left the factory in 2013. “When it comes to safety technologies, we aim to work at the highest levels regarding quality and productivity,” explains Finley. “Our employees receive training on a regular basis and we believe are among the best in the industry.”

Daniel Turner is one of them. In the clean room, he checks each individual camera after assembly. “Our system analyzes up to 523 different parameters,” adds Daniel and proudly emphasizes:“between 98 and 99 percent of all cameras pass the test.”

Increasing sales figures

Plant manager Robin Finley is expanding additional production capacities in Peterlee.

Cameras are produced in Peterlee in considerable quantities: 33,000 units of the S-Cam 3.5 alone, leave the plant each week. This monocular front camera supports numerous safety and comfort features such as predictive collision warning, lane keeping and automatic emergency braking assistance in passenger cars and trucks. The demand for the product is on the rise and so Robin Finley must increase production capacity: “For 2018, the scheduled volume of S-Cam 3.5 cameras is 1.7 million units. Added to that are additional systems such as the previous generation S-Cam 2.5 or the model for the truck sector. This is why we are currently expanding our clean room and hiring staff to have roughly 1,000 employees,” says the plant manager. A next generation camera is also included within this production strategy: Starting in 2019, the S-Cam 4 will be produced in Peterlee. This model enables a broader field of vision than the current camera sensors and provides improved support of automated driving functions, including Traffic Jam Assist and Highway Driving Assist. The mono lens S-Cam 4 can help automakers meet the latest safety requirements of NCAPs and regulators.

Basis for autonomous driving functions

The demand for sensor technologies today is high and will continue to rise as they form the foundation for the autonomous driving applications of tomorrow. In order to operate independently the vehicle must have the capability to identify its environment and map the data. This data is the foundation for a central automated driving control unit such as the ZF ProAI, to correctly calculate the optimal responses, controlling the mechatronic actuators such as steering or brakes. During fully automated driving scenarios, the vehicle must have the ability to function reliably at all times.

The development of such systems is the driving force behind ZF’s slogan “SEE-THINK-ACT”. It is a guiding principle of the company and a unique selling proposition for its technological innovations. Few suppliers offer such a broad product portfolio which help vehicles see, think and act independently.

Data fusion provides 360-degree view

In the field of environment recognition – or “See” – ZF does not rely solely on camera technology; complimentary technologies including radar and laser-based lidar sensors are also in ZF’s product portfolio. The combination of these three sensing technologies is capable of providing a 360-degree panoramic view around the vehicle and the necessary redundancy, allowing each technology to bring different strengths to the table:

  • Lidar systems offer an extremely high resolution and precision 3D image of static and dynamic objects around the vehicle - up to a distance of 300 meters.
  • Radar sensors can reliably deliver information on the position and speed of other road users, even in poor weather conditions such as fog or snow.
  • Cameras collect and analyse high-resolution images to detect and classify objects and vehicles around the host vehicle. They also easily identify movements lateral to the direction of driving.

These technologies form the basis of environmental sensors necessary for the automated vehicles of tomorrow. It is hard to predict when vehicles will be able to operate completely independently, However, the speed of technological development can be clearly observed in ZF’s Peterlee plant. When production began four years ago in 2013, the walls of a roughly 25-square meter room within the clean area incorporated numerous markings and lighting used to calibrate the camera lenses. Today, this process is fully automated and simply requires a small screen at the end of the production line. Sometimes change comes faster than expected.

Cameras used to be calibrated in this room. Nowadays, this process requires only a fraction of the space.

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