ZF shows the future!

I have seen the future of transport – and it’s looking fabulous!

I was given a taste of transport things to come recently in Friedrichshafen, Germany, the home of ZF. The company hosts its Technology Day each year (one year, passenger vehicles are discussed, the next year commercial vehicles get their turn). And I saw some truly astounding technology in action.

By far the most impressive demonstrations were those involving autonomous vehicles; it’s quite spooky to see these vehicles drive themselves! The premise surrounding these autonomous vehicles is this: people have better things to do than to drive – and sometimes machines can actually do a far better job of driving than humans do. That’s because machines aren’t bothered by things such as stress, fatigue, distractions, nor by darkness or adverse weather conditions; they just happily do their jobs.

This was evidenced in ZF’s Innovation Van, which would typically be used for parcel deliveries. This is a growing area of transportation; by 2021, the number of parcels delivered each year is expected to exceed the four-billion mark – in Germany alone.

We all know that a typical parcel-delivery van always has a driver, but actually: his (or her) job shouldn’t really be all about driving – because the most important part of the job should be the delivery of parcels. After all, that’s how the company makes its moolah.

Enter ZF’s Innovation Van, an electrically driven vehicle that uses a smart algorithm that takes into account customer requests in real time and calculates the most efficient delivery route. The Innovation Van boasts level-4 autonomous driving functions. It’s a really clever piece of equipment, which can manoeuvre independently through a city (even on roads sans lane markings), recognise both traffic lights and road signs, and react to sudden hazardous situations. In addition, it can recognise and avoid obstacles such as vehicles that have been double-parked.

Incredibly, if two delivery addresses are really close to each other, the courier can hop out of the van and walk to both addresses – and the Innovation Van will follow him, as if on a virtual leash. We know how difficult it is to find parking spots in big cities. (Have you tried parking in the Cape Town city centre recently?) With the Innovation Van, this problem is a thing of the past – it will drop off the courier and his parcel, and then go and find its own parking bay. If that parking bay is far away, it will return to collect the courier once the parcel has been handed over.

The Innovation Van, which we saw in action (it’s hugely impressive), is equipped with a number of ZF sensors. This is how the van is aware of its surroundings. The ZF proAI central computer is capable of assuming control, processing the data generated by the sensors and enabling the vehicle to react appropriately to complex situations. In addition, intelligent mechatronic systems, such as the electric power steering and the integrated brake control, can carry out the central computer’s instructions.

In future, couriers will also be wearing mixed reality smart glasses, and they will get all the data that they need via these funky and futuristic glasses. Deliveries will also be bolstered via the use of cloud technology. Customers who are expecting the delivery will be able to track the parcel’s route and also change delivery data at short notice. For instance, if the customer isn’t home, the courier can be redirected to a neighbour. This means more deliveries, which is a dream for any courier firm.

Speaking of dreams becoming reality, we also saw a DAF truck tractor (dubbed the ZF Innovation Truck) in action. Without a driver, of course.

When manoeuvring within a depot, drivers spend hours lifting, shifting and stacking containers, but the ZF Innovation Truck carries out these tasks without a driver. As soon as the driver enters the premises, he can get out of his truck, activate the autonomous driving mode and then relax over a cup of coffee. The truck finds its way to the target position, driving autonomously and electrically. Then, entirely under its own steam, the ZF Innovation Truck can load a new container. Controlled by the central computer ZF proAI, the ZF Innovation Truck always manages this task quickly, precisely and with the maximum possible safety.

While ZF proAI is the Innovation Truck’s brain, it also incorporates other ZF technologies – such as the active electrohydraulic ReAX commercial-vehicle steering system and the TraXon Hybrid automatic transmission system.

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Focus on Transport

FOCUS on Transport and Logistics is one of the oldest and most respected transport and logistics publications in southern Africa.
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