With all the advanced technologies galloping on the scene to make trucks run more efficiently and more safely than ever, HDT Executive Editor David Cullen talked high tech with Mitja Schulz, senior vice president, Commercial Vehicle Technology for ZF, the Germany-based manufacturer of driveline and chassis components as well as active and passive safety systems. The interview was lightly edited for length and clarity.

HDT: What are the various safety-enhancement solutions that ZF currently offers for ordering on trucks in the U.S./Canada market?

Mitja Schulz, senior vice president, Commercial Vehicle Technology for ZF - Photo courtesy ZF

Mitja Schulz, senior vice president, Commercial Vehicle Technology for ZF

Photo courtesy ZF

Schulz: ZF sensor technology is a key component within most North American truck collision avoidance systems. ZF radar systems support adaptive cruise control, follow-to-stop-applications, and enables collision warning and emergency braking. ZF camera systems are integral in lane departure warning vehicle detection, forward distance indication, headway warning (to avoid driving too close to a vehicle ahead), adaptive cruise control support, and automatic emergency braking support. ZF fuses these two technologies-- radar and cameras-- together for enhanced safety and reduced false alarms.

HDT: Are there any advanced safety technologies that perhaps suppliers need to do a better job of explaining to fleets before they will invest in them?

Schulz: Yes, electrically assisted steering, which we call ReAX, can benefit fleet customers in more ways than they might expect, particularly when it is combined with our lane-keeping assist technology, called OnTraX. We believe that education and direct customer engagement is key to helping fleet customers understand the benefits of these technologies. For instance, when we share research with our customers that shows truck lane departure is the leading cause for accidents in North America (greater than rear-end collisions), that hits home for fleet operators. When we demonstrate how seamless and easy ReAX and OnTraX are to use for drivers and how it can protect them, customers are better able to realize how such technologies can benefit their employee safety efforts, driver retention and recruiting, and reduce the costs of insurance, collision repairs, etc.

HDT: Do you find that North American fleet operators tend to select or spec safety-enhancement products individually or do they prefer a “systems” approach, such as by buying all from one supplier?

Schulz: Fleet customers choose products that provide the best return on investment, often bundling systems if it provides the best investment. Fleet buyers can be overwhelmed by a long list of options, so we believe simplicity and a systems approach is the right approach. The best technology may not be compiled in a single suite of products; this can be confusing for the fleets as they work to ensure they have the best technology. But the specifying process can become difficult and time consuming. We have also seen that products and functionalities that are common across truck brands, producing commonality in fleets, is something fleet customers strive for.

HDT: We sometimes hear that “such and such” a safety technology will be an “enabler” for autonomous driving. But is that putting the cart before the horse? Should not these systems be evaluated for their immediate impact on safety?

Schulz: The near-future goal for our technologies is to help reduce accidents, via products like [ZF] OnTrax lane-keep assist. We believe this focus will produce real ROI today, in addition to helping customers plan for autonomous driving. It’s true that systems such as lane-keep assist need to prove they can generate additional safety before enabling autonomous driving, but because they can produce such significant near-term benefits, we expect to see higher market penetration in active safety applications of this technology. Currently we see companies like TuSimple and Peloton running autonomous vehicle and platooning tests using active steering assist. Currently, these tests are run in very ideal conditions in the Southwestern United States. These systems must be fully vetted before they are everyday commercial products. We continue to talk about this technology and prepare for it because it will alleviate major industry concerns of driver shortages and efficiency. 

HDT: Can you take us down the road a bit and give us a preview of any safety or powertrain developments that North American fleets can expect to see available from ZF in the near future?

Schulz: Our focus will continue to be on safety first, with next-generation sensor technologies, such as highway driving assist and blind spot monitoring, as well as fully electric steering. ZF is also developing electrified powertrain technology, such as our Traxon Hybrid system and other E-mobility offerings. But our new PowerLine torque converter automatic transmission for medium-duty trucks will also set new standards for efficiency, reliability, and performance in internal-combustion engine applications.

HDT: And we’d like to know a little about yourself. What drove you to be involved with trucks? Had you had much exposure to the industry in general before joining ZF?

Schulz: I started my automotive career about 20 years ago at Bosch and I spent seven years at Porsche’s R&D center near Stuttgart, Germany. I have been with ZF for almost 10 years, and being part of the commercial vehicle business is pretty exciting. We are working on advanced technology that will make life easier for everyone. I am convinced that the trucking industry will lead certain future developments like fully autonomous driving in confined, managed areas such as freight depots. It’s good to be a part of this story.

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