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Vital Transformation

Almost lost in discussions about autonomous-driving technology are the “other” road users and how they fit into the driverless, robotic-vehicle future.

If you’re like me, you have personal mobility options depending on weather, termperature, length of destination and the cargo requirements of any given journey. The car is my primary mode. But I can also roll out my motorcycle or my bicycle. And I can walk—also known as “pedestrian mode” when viewed from the seats of the other mobility devices.

Unfortunately, only one of those mobility modes offers me, the driver/occupant, the safety that comes with advanced driver assistance systems. If I’m biking or walking across a street, I’m often a vulnerable target for distracted drivers. In fact, motorcyclists, cyclists and pedestrians comprise about 50% of the annual 1.25 million deaths caused by traffic accidents worldwide, according to the World Health Organization.

Sure, if I’m lucky my optical or radar signature will be picked up by the car or truck’s ADAS. It will alert the driver, or engage automatic braking/steering action that keeps its driver from squashing me. But my safety improves significantly if we both “see” each other in enough time for both of us to take action and avoid any impact. Recently I watched ZF engineers demonstrate a new “intelligent algorithm” called X2Safe that convinced me a safer future for bikers, cyclists and pedestrians is here.

The system enables all road users, including pedestrians, to communicate with one another using smart phones, smart watches, in-vehicle V2V and V2X systems—or even smart helmets for bikers. X2Safe users serve as sensor points, continuously submitting movement data to the cloud. The algorithm then processes the movement data to determine whether there is a risk of collision with a vehicle or other road users.

If such situations occur, a collision warning is triggered both in the vehicle and on the smartphone, watch, etc., of the other road user before they have seen each other—or before the car’s ADAS sensor array and processor have recognized the danger.

The power of X2Safe lies in its ability to individually analyze the behavior of all road users in terms of possible danger and react accordingly. If a pedestrian does not wait at a red light or crosses the road at a place invisible to drivers, the algorithm deems this behavior particularly "unsafe" and assumes a higher individual risk.

There’s power, too, in the system’s ability to apply context to evaluate the situation. ZF's algorithm processes not only road user information but also that of danger zones, such as tricky roads or hidden bus stops.

Perhaps more remarkable than X2Safe’s capability to reduce car-to-bike and car-to-pedestrian collisions is that it was invented and developed by ZF—famous for its transmission engineering and manufacturing. The 101-year-old maker of Zeppelin gearboxes and master of machining, broaching and hobbing is increasingly focused on game-changing algorithms and cloud-based technologies.

“Our company is in the process of transforming itself for the digital world,” Malgorzata Wiklinska, head of ZF's advanced research group, told me at the demonstration in California. It was her computer-science team who created X2Safe and are developing it into a potentially lucrative new product with widespread implications.

Such transformations are vital for creating the increasingly connected and safe mobility solutions—for drivers, riders and walkers alike.

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