ZF merges active and passive safety into integrated safety and is the only company to encompass the entire technology range.
Achim Neuwirth has been writing for ZF since 2011. He has specialized in writing texts about all kinds of car-related topics: from vehicles to the technology behind them, to driving and traffic.
Active vehicle safety systems help to prevent accidents, while passive systems help to reduce the consequences of accidents. Thanks to enhanced sensor technologies that are networked and interact with the infrastructure, these systems will shape the mobility of the future, says Rudolf Stark, Head of ZF's Passive Safety Systems Division.
ZF has chosen "Next Generation Mobility. Now." as the motto for this year's International Motor Show (IAA). What does this motto stand for?
The mobility evolution is already here. It is not part of a distant future scenario: Electric drives are gaining market share more quickly than expected just a short while ago. The number of drivers supported by assistance functions in their cars keeps growing and newspaper reports on autonomous vehicle projects are published every day. In Silicon Valley, China and here in Germany providers are testing services for fully autonomous and electric shuttle transport, as well as parcel delivery or goods transported by means of truck platooning to be implemented on our highways in the coming years.
Our IAA presentation therefore focuses on the solutions already available for the software-defined vehicle and for new forms of mobility. Hence the addition "Now" to our slogan.
Rudolf Stark is Head of the Passive Safety Systems Division since August 2019.
How safe is this new mobility?
New mobility is not only electric, interconnected and autonomous. It also has to be sustainable and safe. Safety starts with people's trust in reliable new technologies such as autonomous driving. And it requires us to use this technology intuitively and safely. We refer to this as Safe Human Interaction. All those helpful technical features act in the background almost invisibly while helping to prevent accidents or mitigate their consequences. Various camera, radar or lidar sensors permanently feed the electronic brain of the vehicles with information required to enhance safe driving. The brake or steering system can be designed to intervene before anything happens. And if a crash does occur, seatbelts and airbags are designed to take over to help mitigate the consequences.
We can already offer these safety technologies to our customers today. They are the basis of a connected overall system. In the context of safety, our IAA slogan means "Safe mobility. Now.". This is our promise in supporting all road users.
And speaking of change: This year's IAA will also be held at new location and is based on a new concept. What do you expect from this?
The IAA 2021 will turn the entire city of Munich into an exhibition. If you want to see everything, you can drive the approximately twelve kilometers from the trade fair grounds right into the city center of Munich via the "Blue Lane". The dynamic environment of busy inner-city streets is very well suited for testing as it offers a range from bikes and cargo bikes to new driving services to find out how these could be integrated into our everyday lives. To me, this is absolutely fascinating and I am looking forward to experiencing this new IAA concept.
Modern airbags, seatbelts and assistance systems are already effective in themselves. How does integrated safety turn all of this into more than just the sum of its parts?
Looking at the new requirements that safety systems will have to meet today and tomorrow, it is quite clear that safety remains a priority for future mobility. Powerful computers and algorithms can evaluate valuable additional information from the vehicle environment and its interior and make it available to assistance and safety systems. In many cases, the brakes, steering system or chassis will be able to predict and help prevent critical situations to help avoid an accident. If this is not possible, we will gain valuable milliseconds of time to activate the seatbelt earlier, bring the occupants into a better seating position or deploy the airbags according to the actual seating position of the occupants and the severity of the crash. In this way, the overall system becomes more than just the sum of its parts, with integrated safety creating a considerable added value.
Which new requirements are you referring to?
Government and safety organizations such as NCAP continually raising the bar is just one factor among many. With the "General Safety Regulation" at the end of 2019, the EU made a leap forward in terms of safety requirements for all categories of road vehicles. In addition to protecting vulnerable road users, the European regulation also increases the requirements for testing occupant safety. In the future, dummies even more similar to humans will be required, which will lead to new insights. Adaptivity is becoming increasingly important. Who exactly is in the vehicle? Man? Woman? Tall? Short? Advanced airbags will not simply be triggered, pretensioners will not just tighten the seatbelts. They will be engineered to better adjust their retention force to the severity and type of impact. At the same time, they will be designed to adapt to the occupant's body and his or her seating position.
Ideally, the restraint systems will prepare to do this even before an unavoidable impact occurs, i.e., in a "pre-crash" situation. This will allow them to better absorb the body's acceleration. Reliable information from advanced environmental sensors and sensors monitoring the vehicle interior is essential for this purpose. If required, eCall signals will transmit important data to the rescue control center directly after an accident. In the future, this data could be supplemented by information on the occupants' injuries.
Dummies even more similar to humans will have to be required. Currently, ZF “employs” some 120 of these artificial experts at its four sled installation locations in China, Germany, Japan, and the USA.
Where in the field of passive and integrated safety technology can ZF offer more than its competitors?
Our company can cover the entire range, from actuators and assistance systems to electronics, software and sensors. In this context, I am referring to passive safety actuators, i.e., seatbelts and airbags in particular. ZF also offers virtually everything required for assisted and automated driving. This falls into the active safety category and includes sensors such as cameras, LiDAR and radar, chassis systems, brakes and steering systems, as well as the drive system. Our control units and software intelligently connect active and passive safety. We also test, simulate and calculate in-house. Four locations worldwide are equipped with sleds for crash tests. We also consider aspects that go beyond the area of safety.
Can you give examples of ZF "thinking outside the box"?
Consider, for instance, how to warm up an electric car in winter without the range suffering too much as a consequence. If, in addition to heating the steering wheel, we can also heat the seatbelts, reaching a comfortable temperature will require little time and energy. Noise quality would be another example: Our latest retractor has excellent noise characteristics. Even if installed in a quiet electric vehicle in the backrest close to the occupant's ear, it makes so little noise that it is inaudible. We are also working on improving the hygiene of contact surfaces in the vehicle, for example on the steering wheel. This has been much in demand recently.
What safety technologies and solutions can we expect from volume-produced cars in five to ten years from now?
Mainly, progress will be achieved through an even better software-based networking of the technologies we are familiar with today. Sensors will be better able to monitor both the vehicle's surroundings and its interior. This will help assistance systems offer increased safety and comfort.
In the interior, sensors such as cameras, radars, hands-on detection in the steering wheel or intelligent seat belt buckles will provide more precise information on the occupants' position. This is necessary to make handover scenarios between autopilots and humans as safe as possible. Is the person currently paying attention and able to drive the vehicle? Is he or she in an upright or still in a relaxed position? Is the person holding a heavy object?
Among other things, Interior Monitoring can be used to determine the driver's attention.
These questions can be answered by sensors monitoring the vehicle's interior. This will also enable the system to decide on how to appropriately alert the driver based on the individual situation, for instance by means of a tactile warning via the seat belt. In the event of an unavoidable accident, it will be easier for the system to determine whether the adaptive airbags should be triggered and, if so, how.
Steer-by-wire systems will eventually make the steering wheel and column more and more obsolete. In terms of safety, this will further enhance the interaction between the steering system and automated driving functions. The resulting increase in available space will create new airbag installation options and open completely new design possibilities for the steering wheel. And one less component will be present to penetrate the vehicle's interior in the event of unfavorable crash conditions. ZF steering wheels will be smaller and more digital and easier to operate and customize.
Given the safety requirements that must be met, does safety have the priority it deserves among car manufacturers and buyers?
I think so. The safety level of modern cars in Europe is high. In independent crash tests such as Euro-NCAP, a large number of cars achieve the maximum rating of five stars. In terms of development and investment, OEMs strongly focus on electromobility and automated driving, which is logical, given the disruptive challenges we are facing. Particularly for new providers, a strong safety awareness and comprehensive safety features could be a differentiating factor that will help them position themselves ahead of their competitors ‒ a strategy certain premium brands have been employing for decades.
How can ZF support these new players in particular?
For some OEMs, we are becoming safety system suppliers. We more or less offer the entire package. This can be particularly useful for the new players in the field of mobility. After all, they can benefit from our extensive automotive expertise. Continuously building up all the required safety expertise up to and including integrated safety also takes time. When they work with us, we can provide them with decades of experience right away. This does not apply to the products only. We also offer consultancy for development, testing and validation.
New providers often also introduce new forms of mobility in the area of passenger transport: What role does safety play for robo-shuttles, for example?
When it comes to driving services that are intended to rely on fully automated driving in the future, many people are initially skeptical and ask themselves whether this technology is already mature and safe. After all, we would all like to arrive at our destination safely. With every test kilometer, the electronic brains of these vehicles develop and learn to avoid accidents that can possibly be avoided within certain physical limits. However, safety also involves offering solutions that assist in worst-case scenarios. To this end, we develop restraint systems that can also be used for new seating positions in robo-shuttles. Our roof-installed airbag systems make it possible to protect passengers sitting opposite one another in so-called "campfire" positions, for example. We are currently discussing projects like these with several manufacturers.
How close are we to achieving Vision Zero, the vision of zero accidents?
Protecting the lives of all road users and achieving zero accidents is the common goal of all companies working in this field. That's where we are headed. However, we will not be able to guarantee absolute safety in the foreseeable future. There are still physical and technological limits to what can be achieved in road traffic. Nevertheless, an ever-growing number of vehicles is already equipped with very effective assistance systems today. Only recently, my own car had to perform an emergency braking maneuver. Nobody got hurt. Without electronic assistance, the same situation would probably have ended painfully.
By the way, attention is a key buzz word: In the field of electromobility, where I worked before taking over my current role, I was able to experience first-hand how it suddenly became a global focus for the industry. Integrated Safety will most likely play a similar role a few years from now. It will be the "next big thing".