ZF ProAI: Autonomous driving soon a reality with artificial intelligence

6 MinutesBy NZ Trucking magazineJanuary 9, 2018

If you think truly autonomous vehicles are still something of a pipe dream, think again.

Just one year after ZF and NVIDIA unveiled their joint project to develop an AI-capable control box, the supercomputer now meets all automotive standards. The ZF development vehicle being showcased at CES [formerly The International Consumer Electronics Show] is proof that in combination with a comprehensive sensor set, the ProAI is helping to make modular, scalable autonomous driving features a reality.

Engineers from ZF‘s pre-development team have implemented numerous driving functions in a test vehicle enabling level 4, fully automated driving. With this, ZF is demonstrating expertise as a system architect for autonomous driving and in particular for detecting and processing environmental data. The advanced engineering project also demonstrates the efficiency and practicality of ZF‘s supercomputer, the ProAI. It acts as a central control unit within the test vehicle and with this, ZF is taking a modular approach to the development of automated driving functions. The goal is a system architecture that can be applied to any vehicle and tailored according to the application, the available hardware and the desired level of automation.

A Chinese car manufacturer will be the first customer to install the control box in a vehicle with autonomous driving features, thanks to a collaborative project between ZF, NVIDIA and Baidu. This open cooperation network – part of ZF‘s Vision Zero ecosystem ­– is proving to be a success factor for the company, both in terms of its strategic long-term goal of an accident and emission-free world and in terms of winning new business.

“We are well on track when it comes to future-oriented technologies,” says Michael Hankel, member of the board of management at ZF Friedrichshafen AG. “We’re delighted to have our first volume production order. It means that we are at the forefront of democratising autonomous driving in a mass mobility market. And, this is a testament to the pace and reliability of our innovation capability.”

Implementing developments for the respective automation levels is an industry-wide challenge: “The vast field of automated driving is the sum of many individual driving functions that a car must be able to handle without human intervention. And, it has to do that reliably, in different weather, traffic and visibility conditions,” said Torsten Gollewski, head of advanced engineering at ZF Friedrichshafen AG.

As part of the test vehicle, ZF has set up a complete, modular development environment including functional architecture with artificial intelligence. “For example, we implemented a configuration for fully automated, that is, level 4 driving functions. The configuration’s modules can be adapted to the specific application according to ZF’s ‘see-think-act’ approach – helping vehicles to have the necessary visual and thinking skills for urban traffic,” says Gollewski.

“The flexible architecture also allows for other automation levels in a wide variety of vehicles. At the same time, it provides information about which minimum hardware configuration is essential for which level.”

In recent months, ZF‘s engineers have ‘trained‘ the vehicle to perform different driving functions. Particular focus was placed on urban environments such as interaction with pedestrians and pedestrian groups at crosswalks, collision estimation, behaviour at traffic lights and roundabouts.

Autonomous driving functions included: In the test vehicle presented at CES 2018, ZF has implemented a modular system for various highly automated and fully automated driving functions (levels 3 and 4).

What do the levels of automation mean?

Level 0: No automation – the driver controls it all: steering, brakes, throttle, power.

Level 1: Driver assistance – most functions are still controlled by the driver, but a specific function (like steering or accelerating) can be done automatically by the car.

Level 2: Partial automation – at least one driver assistance system is automated, like cruise control and lane centring. The driver must still always be ready to take control of the vehicle, however.

Level 3: Conditional automation – drivers are still necessary, but are able to completely shift ‘safety-critical functions‘ to the vehicle, under certain traffic or environmental conditions.

Level 4: Fully autonomous. Level 4 vehicles are designed to perform all safety-critical driving functions and monitor roadway conditions for an entire trip, but it does not cover every driving scenario.

Level 5: A fully autonomous system that expects the vehicle‘s performance to equal that of a human driver, in every driving scenario.