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Interconnected for Greater Road Safety

Helps to prevent wrong-way driving and provides a driver distraction assistant: With its new concept vehicle, ZF shows how intelligently networked systems can contribute to a world with zero accidents.

Text: Achim Neuwirth , 17. August, 2017

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.

Wrong-way drivers? That's always someone else. Or not? The fact is that when driving a car, especially on unfamiliar roads, one brief moment of distraction, poor visibility, fatigue or wrongly interpreting the navigation command are all it takes to be suddenly driving on the highway or freeway in the wrong direction. “Accidents involving wrong-way drivers end in fatalities much more frequently than other crashes because the vehicles in this scenario usually crash head on,” explains Dr. Steffen Jung, project manager and development engineer at ZF.

A van on the outside, the future on the inside

His current project rests on four wheels and looks like a conventional family minivan. But under its shiny metal bodywork, about 100 engineers working under Jung have spent the last 18 months dramatically changing the interior design and its components, so much so that it is barely recognizable. The result of their efforts is called the "Vision Zero Vehicle" , a car which takes a great leap ahead in meeting the company's vision of zero accidents and zero emissions. It is a concept car completely packed with innovative driving and safety functions that are essentially based on intelligently networked and readily available systems from ZF. These features and functions enable this unique vehicle to operate in either assisted or automated mode. The fact that the innovation vehicle is a family minivan is part of the concept's appeal because parents are particularly sensitive to safety and environmental issues.

ZF has integrated functions and systems supporting greater safety in this vehicle.

“Today, distraction is the second most frequent cause of traffic accidents – directly after excess speed.”

Dr. Steffen Jung, project manager and development engineer at ZF

Preventing wrong-way driving early on

So how does it all work in practice? The vehicle quietly purrs around the test track with Jung sitting behind the wheel. His colleagues have duplicated typical traffic scenarios along the extensive test track, including potholes, road work signs and even a freeway entrance ramp.

Not far away, the “do not enter” signs are visible at the freeway exit ramp. “The Vision Zero Vehicle has already long since detected the traffic sign,” explains Jung. This capability is primarily due to the high-precision, constantly updated cloud map data linked to the GPS navigation system, not to mention the triple lens camera––called the TriCam––mounted on the front windshield. Not only that, it receives information from the AC1000 radar system that also comes from ZF’s shelves.

"Wrong-way Inhibit" can prevent drivers from turning off in the wrong direction.

In the meantime, the bright yellow “STOP WRONG WAY” signs are getting closer. When Jung turns on his indicator with the intention of turning in that direction, the new “Wrong-way Inhibit” assistance function is activated. Clear visual warning signs appear on the central touch screen in the center console and in the smaller display on the dashboard, these are backed up by alarm sounds. The engineer ignores the signals on purpose and stays on course. A few moments later, the active ZF seatbelts vibrate on his upper body and the steering wheel becomes much harder to turn in the wrong direction. Nevertheless, Jung makes the turn.

Helps prevent potentially fatal accidents

Now the vehicle takes over control. Despite the driver pressing down on the gas pedal, the vehicle slows down because ZF’s fast-reacting Integrated Brake Control (IBC) system is intervening. The minivan steers itself to the far right shoulder of the freeway. Ultimately, the Vision Zero Vehicle comes to a halt with the hazard lights automatically activated. The system only allows the driver to drive out of the danger zone along the road or freeway shoulder if there is sufficient maneuvering space or if he shifts into reverse. “With our system on board, drivers would no longer drive the wrong way due to a momentary blackout,” says Jung confidently.

Keeping an eye on the driver

The vehicle continues on its way around the test track. Jung suddenly begins to act as if he is searching for a certain setting on the entertainment system. His eyes rest firmly on the center console. This is registered by what is called a time-of-flight (ToF) interior camera. It uses infrared technology to detect objects in 3D. Unlike digital video systems, it even works in the dark. This is yet one more innovative assistance function developed by ZF engineers for the company's Vision Zero Vehicle. It is called the “Driver Distraction Assist” and intervenes if the driver is distracted. Jung’s eyes have been looking away from the road for more than two seconds. A tight curve in the road lies before him. Driver Distraction Assist first issues warnings using multiple media: visually on the dashboard display, acoustically through the entertainment system and haptically as the seatbelt tightens.

At the same time, this assistance function keeps the vehicle in the lane, both on the straight and in the curves. Jung makes no move to react. Under control of the Driver Distraction Assist function, the Vision Zero Vehicle steers around the curve. Jung retakes control of the wheel. The goal is to keep the vehicle on the road and, if needed, the vehicle can also override the driver's gas pedal command to achieve that end.

Reliable intervention in case of distraction

“Today, distraction is the second most frequent cause of accidents after excessive speed,” explains Jung. According to a survey conducted by the Allianz insurance company, distracted drivers caused 350 fatal accidents in Germany in 2015 and, according to information from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the number is ten times as high in the U.S. “Drivers are absolutely unaware of how long they drive blind for due to various distractions and the extent to which they put themselves and other road users at risk. A system that warns them and, in emergencies, takes corrective action, is extremely useful,” says Jung.

Good human-machine interaction

To err is human. Roughly 90 percent of all traffic accidents are due to human error . The vision of zero accidents will not become reality until all types of transport are networked and autonomously driven on roads with humans simply as passengers. The Vision Zero Vehicle can do both: support the driver with its assistance systems or drive autonomously. One of the biggest challenges is ensuring that vehicle control is smoothly returned to the human. And what happens if the driver simply does not respond? “With the Vision Zero Vehicle, we want to show how the transition phase from assisted driving to autonomous driving can be safely designed and implemented," says Dr. Gerhard Gumpoltsberger. He is the head of Innovation Management in Corporate Advanced Engineering at ZF.