ZF’s group CEO, Wolf-Henning Scheide, discussing why IT and technology will be key the supplier’s success.

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ZF CEO Scheider sees autonomous people movers as a growth market. At CES in Las Vegas, his company announced that mobility provider Transdev would be the first customer for its e.GO people mover. ZF also unveiled a fully functional driverless van. (Image: ZF)

ZF Friedrichshafen presented a wide range of innovative products and systems at last week’s CES consumer electronics show. The world’s fifth-largest automotive supplier group unveiled an automotive-intelligence powered supercomputer; premiered a software stack tailored to new mobility concepts; announced that mobility provider Transdev would be the first official customer for its e.GO people mover; and showed a fully functional ride-hailing innovation vehicle.

Determined to be a key systems provider for an auto industry that will soon be characterized by driverless vehicles and mobility as a service, ZF used the annual CES exhibition to showcase the technologies it believes will help make that vision a reality. In Las Vegas, ZF’s group CEO, Wolf-Henning Scheider, discussed the transformation of the auto industry with a small group of reporters.

Had you expected just a few years ago that things would move as fast as they do in the auto industry today?

No, if you had asked me three years ago, I wouldn’t have expected that today we have a machine like our ZF ProAI RoboThink, which performs up to 600 trillion calculations a second and operates with artificial intelligence. And I wouldn’t have expected that we can replace quite a few software stacks with it. It shows that you cannot predict the future.

What has changed in the past three years?

The tipping point for artificial intelligence has been the availability of much more computing power. We are now part of that with our ZF ProAI RoboThink supercomputer. Roughly 20 years ago we already had AI, but it was a disappointment because the computing power was lacking. In the last three-to-four years we did get the computing power and that has changed the speed at which we can move.

What exactly is ZF selling to the automotive and mobility industries in addition to your traditional components and systems?

Our strategy is to be totally flexible. An automaker customer may just want to take one chunk of a system we are offering. We say to them: “If we can bring value to the table, please take it from us.”

The talk at CES is all about driverless cars. Will we have Level 4 autonomous vehicles - without the need for human driver intervention - on the road by 2021, as some companies are predicting?

You won’t see them on the road by 2021. You will see such vehicles in restricted or geofenced areas. That is realistic. There are two conditions that need to be met. The first is legislation and the second is that we need to make the technology fully stable under all conditions and in all environments. Things work in nice weather, but we’re not ready yet for all conditions.

What are your thoughts on the viability of Level 3 autonomous vehicles, which would still require an alert driver at the wheel?

In cities, we will have a driver on board in coming years as we train the AI system and bring reliability in a complex urban environment. There’s no question that this will take years, but I don’t know how long exactly. We will have geofenced areas in cities and, as cities adapt, you will have people movers without drivers there earlier. These autonomous vehicles will come faster than driverless passenger cars.

Are there areas of technology that still need to improve to make the vision a reality?

Screen-Shot-2019-01-17-at-09.41.38-300x199. At CES, ZF showcased its next-generation mobility technology in a driverless “ride hailing innovation vehicle” (Photo: Bongard)

We do not have the ambition to do everything on our own. We have partners such as Nvidia, Xilinx and Mobileye. Combined with our partners, we have a fully sufficient number of engineers working on new technologies. We are the the company that integrates everything into the vehicle or provide a full system to a mobility provider. That is our strategy.

But you also manufacture a vehicle, the e.GO people mover, and, now, the robotaxi van you are showing here. Are you going to be selling vehicles?

That’s just to get the technology on the road. It’s not our aim to be a people mover manufacturer.

Do you detect a lot of interest in people movers among your automaker clients?

I think it will be an attractive market because it really offers a solution for mobility in large urban areas. I’d be surprised if every automotive strategy department around the world isn’t looking at this market with a big magnifying glass.

What do you need to do as an industry to remove people’s wariness and skepticism about autonomous cars?

You have to take seriously people’s fears and anxieties, especially in the area of safety. If you don’t get the safety piece right in the mindset of the customers, they won’t get on board. This won’t happen overnight, but we can achieve this. You just have to be patient.

You’re very optimistic about driverless technology coming to the commercial vehicle segment.

The biggest problem the logistics industry faces is that there’s a shortage of truck drivers. Ask any young kid if he wants to be a truck driver and you won’t find anybody. Hence, the logistics industry has a desperate need for us to come up with automated vehicles. We’ll likely start with trucks in restricted areas. There are some 35,000 vehicles at a big airport such as Frankfurt and you can automate almost all of them. We’ll provide fully automated solutions for airports and harbors.