CES 2020: ZF advances timetable for Level 4 trucking autonomy

ZF CEO Wolf-Henning Scheider

German supplier ZF Friedrichshafen will deliver a Level 4 autonomous driving system for a commercial vehicle customer by 2025, advancing the timetable for automated commercial trucking.

The race to automate trucking is important because of an estimate by the American Trucking Associations (ATA) that a shortage of long-haul truck drivers will swell to 100,000 by 2020, ZF CEO Wolf-Henning Scheider said in a Jan. 6 press conference at CES 2020 in Las Vegas. 

The driver shortage was the top industry concern in 2019 in a survey of carriers and drivers by the American Transportation Research Institute.

Yard work

Based on the ZF ProAI supercomputer, ZF is developing the Electronic Control Unit (ECU) for a Level 4 system for an unnamed international commercial vehicle manufacturer. The market launch is scheduled for 2024-25, Scheider said.

ZF prefers using autonomous trucks in terminals and depots versus on the highway. It demonstrated an autonomous yard tractor prototype in Germany in 2018 and a Level 4 autonomous day cab at a truck technology event in Ohio in 2019.

It is focusing on consistent routes like the former UD Trucks subsidiary of AB Volvo did on a sugar processing plantation in Japan’s Hokkaido prefecture in 2019. Volvo is selling UD Trucks to Japan’s Isuzu Motors.

Others are taking to the highway. Daimler Trucks purchased Torc Robotics, a late-stage startup in 2019 to advance its efforts toward Level 4 automated trucks on U.S. highways by the end of the decade. 

Level 4 is considered to be fully autonomous driving and the vehicle can make the majority of driving situations independently. Level 4 vehicles still have a cockpit and a human driver can still take over control.

ZF competitor Robert Bosch has engineers integrated with startup Nikola Motors, which plans to be commercially producing hydrogen-powered fuel cell Class 8 trucks by the end of 2022. Nikola has said it expects to offer Level 4 trucks shortly after launch.

Dividing line

Many questions are unanswered on the legal framework for automated driving on public roads, ZF’s Scheider said. That is why ZF sees automated driving assistance systems (ADAS) as the best solution for personal passenger cars.  

“For passenger cars, we see the greatest potential in Level 2+ concepts for implementing automated driving functions and making them accessible to all drivers,” he said. “There are no regulations for Level 3 or higher and there is no viable business case for individual ownership.”

Level 2+ reinforces the industry’s disinterest in making Level 3 automated vehicles. 

Level 3 vehicles are capable of taking full control and operating during select parts of a journey. But the driver still must take over control of on/off-ramps and in city driving. 

ZF has signed a contract to deliver its first Level 2+ system to an unidentified Asian automaker by the end of 2020, Scheider said. Three versions are offered. ZF’s coASSIST will cost a customer less than $1,000. More powerful Level 2+ systems go by the names of ZF coDRIVE and ZF coPILOT.