With its “middleware”, ZF is creating a central software platform for the software-defined car of the future: Middleware helps connect all software applications and enables data to be exchanged between them.
December 16, 2020
Lars Weitbrecht originally comes from the music and gaming industry, but in addition to holding a game pad or guitar in his hand, he also enjoys the power of the pen and the feel of the steering wheel.
Software is familiar territory for the automotive industry. For decades, manufacturers and suppliers have relied on making mechatronic systems more efficient thanks to digital control – including ZF. Many of the Group's products are given additional functions primarily through software. The brakes can be used to stabilize a vehicle that threatens to skid through lightning-fast interventions for each individual wheel - the basic principle of all ABS and ESC (Electronic Stability Control) functions. Seat belt systems can tighten before an impact thanks to active safety sensors that indicate a crash in imminent, thus reducing the risk of injury to occupants. Adaptive chassis control steering systems resolve the previously common compromise between comfort steering at low speeds and a more sporty feel at higher speeds.
The number of electronic control units (ECUs) in automobiles has increased continuously over the past few decades. As many as 100 different ECUs can be installed in today's vehicles. Their integration into the vehicle is complex and the software is tied to the respective control unit. The potential of real system networking is not fully exploited in this way.
Software, functions, smart systems: ZF is a unique system solutions provider across hardware and software, bringing the software-defined car to life.
ZF middleware: optimally integrating mechanics and code
Large technology companies like Google took a different approach when they began promoting autonomous driving a little over ten years ago. A powerful central computer was in charge of the overall system to provide coordinated automated functions. Virtually all the sensor data came together centrally. Domain controllers, which interacted with the central computer, bundled the control requirements for the essential driving functions in the drive and chassis. This automotive electronics architecture was more like a computer: An operating system (OS) controlled other vehicle systems and applications in a network.
Even in this configuration the challenges of system integration are significant. A digital language issue must be overcome allowing the many individual systems and ECUs that have typically been delivered to the manufacturer by a wide variety of suppliers can be networked efficiently.
This is exactly where ZF comes in with its new “middleware” that the company presented to customers and press at a virtual preview to the CES 2021. The ZF Middleware acts as a digital translator through which the software applications of the individual systems can communicate better with the operating system and thus with the entire vehicle. The key functions of the middleware are the abstraction of the computer hardware from portable software applications and the communication between these applications. "With this new solution, we are underpinning our claim to be one of the world's leading system providers for the software-defined car of the future", says Dr. Dirk Walliser, Senior Vice President Corporate Research and Development.
As a “mediator”, the ZF middleware enables efficient communication from software functions to hardware components. It provides independence and compatibility to make vehicle platforms future proof.
Bits, bytes and components work together seamlessly
Such an approach reduces the effort for automobile manufacturers to integrate increasingly complex systems into the vehicle. This includes software as well as hardware. Instead of a digital jumble of language, this creates seamless cooperation between different components and different software layers.
“Our customers benefit from accelerated development processes and significantly reduced complexity when integrating hardware and software. Throughout the vehicle’s lifetime functions can be updated or additionally offered on-demand”, says Walliser. ZF Middleware is production-ready as a comprehensive platform in 2024. Its development is closely linked to the development of applications for the technology fields of automated driving, electromobility, vehicle motion control and integrated safety.
The mobility of the future – open and for everyone
The ZF middleware acts as a link between the software applications and the hardware components of a vehicle. And accordingly, only the middleware has to be connected to the vehicle's operating system. This approach minimizes the interfaces, guarantees fast communication between all parts of the system and helps the OEMs to significantly reduce the complexity of the system integration. The same applies to the hardware: Here, too, the middleware simplifies integration into the vehicle.
This open hardware and software architecture enables a faster and improved development process between ZF, the vehicle manufacturers and other partners - throughout the life of the vehicle. Manufacturers and end customers benefit from vehicle functions that are always state-of-the-art.
In addition, the ZF solution can be scaled modularly. Depending on the manufacturer's architecture, the company offers a complete system approach or individual modules. In addition - if required - the ZF ProAI supercomputer platform can supply established manufacturers as well as new players in the mobility market with a powerful central computer that can network software, computer and sensor hardware, and actuators.
New global software center
In addition, the new Global Software Center will create a group-wide hub that will develop software for future architectures and make it accessible throughout the company. This enables ZF to coordinate and standardize new trends, technologies, methods, tools and functions centrally and make them available to all business areas via a common development platform.
However, ZF does not aim to centralize software development. Rather, the teams that have long been closely interlinking hardware and software at component level will continue to use their expertise to deliver software excellence. Here the Global Software Center creates ideal framework conditions through joint software integration projects. Pure software products - such as middleware - are created centrally in the Global Software Center and then made available to all areas in the group.
In this way, ZF Software can develop or adapt much faster. Just as it will be necessary for future software-defined vehicles and integrated cooperation with customers and partners.
Video: ZF Software Day
Video: ZF Software Day
In a preview to CES 2021, ZF presented its new middleware.