ZF rolls out new AV sensing system components at 2019 CES, promotes its geofenced shuttle while investing big in AV/EV tech.
Electrified and autonomous-vehicle (AV) technologies have seen heavy investments from automotive suppliers, but sales haven’t yet begun to support the expenditures. That’s a major challenge for top-tier suppliers like ZF that need to stay at the forefront of technology, yet still remain profitable. This challenge is among many discussed by the supplier during the 2019 CES conference in Las Vegas.
On the technology front, ZF unveiled new controllers and other technologies to advance AV processing and sensing. The company is among several jump-starting the AV market with vehicles developed within an ecosystem of partners. ZF is focusing on AVs that operate in geofenced areas in the near term, an application that many feel will grow more quickly than AVs with unlimited operating envelopes.
This shift in focus doesn’t slow down spending in emerging areas. As part of its ongoing plan to diversify from mechanical parts to digital technologies, ZF plans to invest more than 12 billion euros in automated driving and electrification over the next five years. Connecting all its products to the Internet of Things by 2025 is another aspect of its transition.
While autonomy and electrification are major investment areas, revenues from advanced technologies like its ProAI processors for AVs aren’t likely to significantly contribute to the bottom line for some years. “With the changes in the mobility industry, we need to finance our projects without impacting earnings,” said CEO Wolf-Henning Scheider. “We need to do it with speed to keep up with industry demands. Sales of ProAI are currently very small, they’re mostly going to test applications.”
Scheider predicted that SAE Level 4 vehicles will start appearing in restricted areas in the next two to three years. Building familiarity with those driverless vehicles will pave the way for broader acceptance of vehicles that operate in open environments. “We have to get people on board, to get their confidence in geofenced areas,” Scheider said. “After that, it will be a bit like flying, most people have flown on planes that use autopilot and they are no longer concerned.”
ZF aims to facilitate the acceptance of robotaxis and ride-hailing vehicles with its electric automated shuttle, the e.GO Mover (bottom). Transdev, which manages transit for over 11 million passengers per day, is adding the e.GO Mover to its vehicle fleet. Scheider said he expects sales volumes for the e.GO Mover to reach five-figures by 2020-2021, but it’s mainly a proof of concept for its ecosystem collaboration, and not targeted at making ZF a vehicle supplier.
ZF also announced upgraded technical offerings at CES. The latest version of its ProAI line, RoboThink (right), can run at up to 600 teraflops per second (TFLOPS), with a base speed of 150 TFLOPS without the addition of optional computing modules (a marked improvement over the first-gen, 1-TFLOP ProAI board introduced in 2017). The high throughput of RoboThink lets it fuse and analyze input from a range of sensors, and also facilitates the use of artificial intelligence, which many say will be a necessary component of fully autonomous vehicles.
“Only in the last three or four years have we gotten the computing power needed for AI,” Scheider told Automotive Engineering. “It’s important to note that ProAI is scalable, so customers can choose the level of computing power they need.”