Can you think of one motor show in the past two years where manufacturers have spoken about big engines, power, acceleration or the thrill of driving? Instead, the buzzwords have been electric and automated driving. Phrases likes zero emission and autonomous driving have been floating around the booths not only around European motor shows, but shows around the world. And if you thought only carmakers have been talking of these terms, you’d be highly mistaken. Companies that, for so many years, made components that would need oiling and greasing and would move are talking about computing and lasers and radars and ones and zeros.
Welcome to this year’s ZF global showcase of technology. Now, before I tell you more about the tech, the word ZF brings only one thing to mind, right? Gearboxes. True, the company has been making transmissions for many decades now. And, of course, it’s also known for clutches and other components that are vital in order to make a nice-driving car. But the world is changing fast and ZF is catching up. Just like Bosch, ZF is transforming itself from just a component maker to a technology partner. And along with setting up a huge plant to manufacture gearboxes and clutches in Chakan, Maharashtra, it’s also putting up a technology centre in Hyderabad where engineers will research electric drivetrains and cars that can drive themselves.
But before the completely-autonomous cars come to life, what we already have – driver assistance – is being taken to the next level where with the help of sensors, cameras, lasers and radar tech, the system can detect lane marking, sign boards and obstructions on the road along with other traffic, thus reducing driver error. Using all the tech ZF has come up with in the past years, it’s built a car that rewrites the rules of vehicular dynamics and automated driving. It’s called the Vision Zero vehicle.
It started life as a regular VW Touran, but soon after it rolled off of the assembly line, ZF threw away everything under the skin to retain only the body shell. What replaces the internal-combustion engine is a 150kW electric motor that is housed on space saving rear axle called the mSTARS. According to ZF, the Vision Zero vehicle will help set the course for an accident-free and zero emissions future of automobiles.
The Vision Zero vehicle is also capable of driving itself without any assistance from the driver. It can keep to its lane, change lanes whenever required and keep it safe from traffic on the road. When the driver switches off the autonomous driving mode, it still maps the driver’s movements and detects if the driver loses his attention from the road, or enters a wrong way. We did test the Vision Zero vehicle and tried to fool it, but the computers turned out to be smarter and brought us to a complete halt the second we tried to enter a wrong way – of course, all in a controlled environment at a test facility near Vienna, Austria.
The Vision Zero vehicle busts some myths about cars such as only the front wheels need to steer and the electric motor needs to be at the front of the vehicle. The rear axle can steer the wheels up to 12 degrees, making high-speed manoeuvres more stable and reducing the turning radius at low speed. It turns the rear wheels in the same direction at high speeds and in the opposite direction at low speeds. And with all this, the cameras and radars onboard help detect road irregularities and prep the suspension to swallow the bumps better. All this tech that we’re seeing in prototypes will make it to production cars in the next few years and will make you rethink the way cars were made for so many years.
And yes, in the showcase of tech, ZF also had a Ford F150 with active rear-wheel steering that can put a Maruti Alto to shame in the ease of manoeuvrability around tight parking spaces. Just the perfect thing we need in our ever-growing cities, right?