ZF’s Autonomous Shuttle Takes Aim at Driver Shortages in the Fleet Sector

At MOVE 2023, we spoke with Marco Neubold, Vice President for Industrial and Autonomous Mobility Aftermarket at ZF about the autonomous shuttle currently in its final stages of development.

MOVE 2023 is the world’s most important urban mobility event. Held at London’s ExCel centre, the event brings together engineers, experts and changemakers to exhibit and discuss the current and future trends of the world of transportation and fleet vehicles.

ZF is a global technology company supplying systems to enable the next generation of mobility. Its autonomous transport system (ATS) has created a network of electrically powered, driverless shuttles with on-demand scheduling and a seamless connection to other transport systems such as buses and trains.

Marco Neubold is Vice President for Industrial and Autonomous Mobility Aftermarket at ZF. Image from ZF.

Could you give me a quick overview of the shuttle you’re exhibiting at MOVE 2023?

Our Next Generation Shuttle is designed for mixed operations, which means it can run in normal traffic on public streets, as well as segregated lanes and gated areas. Having the complete aid of sensors means it can operate alongside normal traffic. This shuttle is Level 4, so fully autonomous, where a driver or safety steward is not required to operate the vehicle.

It's a 6.7 metre-long vehicle with a capacity for 22 passengers in the version we’re showing at MOVE. But it has a totally flexible interior set-up which ensures it can be used for many different applications. We’ve displayed it here with 10 standard seats, some fold-down seats and wheelchair areas – which are very important in public transportation – plus some standing room. The concept is that it’s flexible and adaptable to the needs of the transportation operator.

In our opinion, the use of fully electric and fully automated shuttles in defined operating areas can flexibly supplement local public transportation and open up new inner-city neighbourhoods as well as traffic-calmed new housing developments and rural areas. And 22-person capacity seems to be the size required to feed into bigger lines or to operate the last mile.

It can also be used for other purposes. For example, it can be used at airports to move passengers from the gate to the plane. Alternatively, we’ve also discussed amusement parks, university campuses, and hospitals. Essentially, anywhere there is a need to transport people or cargo.

Image by ZF at MOVE 2023.
Image by ZF at MOVE 2023.

This version is intended for transporting people, but do you see in the future at some point that it could be used for other purposes such as goods transportation or refuse collection?

Yes. We see a lot of use cases that could be very interesting. Currently, we are focusing on people transportation to feed the need I described with public transportation.

One other challenge we hope to solve with this is the driver shortage. In most countries – UK, France, Spain, Italy and the US – we are seeing severe driver shortages. It’s becoming really difficult to find drivers. Transport operators need to do something because they will run out of people that are able to drive these vehicles.

We are already working on a roadmap of subcategories of cargo, that’s a big topic. So to transport goods, at the end of the day, it’s all the same. If you have your ATS system up and running, then the vehicle knows how to behave. If you put a different good on it, if you want to transport products or people, it’s not so different.

Since it works with battery power, how far can it travel in one charge?

It depends on how you operate and the routes taken. The next-generation shuttle can cover up to 80 miles in pure electric mode – at a maximum speed of initially 25 mph (40km/h), in further development of 50 mph (80 km/h), which is especially important to connect more rural areas to cities when traffic is flowing a bit faster. At 40km/h you are more than fast enough for all the inner city transportation.

It has the capacity for opportunity charging, firstly via a hook-like apparatus called a pantograph, which connects to the top of the vehicle. Alternatively, you can have in-street charging like induction.

At the end of the operation, it’s charged in the depot overnight.

In terms of other products on the market, is this totally unique?

What is unique from our perspective is that we combine two things. Firstly, the shuttle is designed for mass production, the aim is to deliver several thousand shuttles to customers over the coming years.

The second point is that it’s an autonomous vehicle graded at Level 4 and this is pretty unique. This means that all the components need to fulfil the highest standards of the automotive industry.

The issue of safety is a barrier for some when considering travelling in autonomous vehicles, how does the shuttle detect pedestrians and traffic lights?

The vehicle is completely equipped with state-of-the-art sensor technology consisting of lidar, radar, camera, and audio systems that provide precise environmental detection sensors. This is the basis for any autonomous driving – you have several systems in place that can interact and then react. Also, the vehicle can hear because it has sound detection. If you imagine, it’s driving autonomously, and then an ambulance or fire engine arrives, it’s able to detect it and let those vehicles pass by. It can even hear you if you shout “wait!”

This is complemented by other technology such as the ZF ProConnect connectivity platform, which enables communication with the infrastructure and the cloud, as well as the ZF ProAI supercomputer, where data converge. The Virtual Driver – ZF's AD software – processes these expansive volumes of information, derives safe driving strategies using artificial intelligence, and passes them on as input to the on-board actuators. The Virtual Driver replaces the human driver and thus makes the steering wheel and brake pedal superfluous.

The system is designed with redundancies so that the full functionality and operability of the vehicles are highly reliable. Thus, ProConnect and ProAI units in the shuttle work together to operate the ZF Virtual Driver.

All ZF components and systems are Automotive Grade certified, meeting both the high safety and quality requirements of the automotive industry and applicable cybersecurity standards.

So is legislation a barrier at the moment?

Legislation is still a challenge because it is not legal for Level 4 autonomous vehicles to operate without a driver in many countries around the world. Last year, Germany introduced legislation for Level 4 driving. The EU is working on it and a lot of countries are currently doing the same. But legislation is a barrier, especially if it’s not there.

Another challenge is what I mentioned about the Level 4 components – Level 4 braking, and Level 4 steering. There’s not a lot out in the market. That’s why it makes sense for us. As one of the biggest suppliers working on these components, we have access to these components and we can bring them into the shuttle. ZF is at the forefront of developing and industrializing advanced chassis systems with the industry’s most comprehensive offering of by-wire technologies that no longer require a mechanical connection or system fluids. A primary example is ZF’s steer-by-wire solution. ZF has already received significant orders.

So when do you predict the shuttle to be fully in action?

We will already have the first shuttles running next year in state-funded projects in two cities in Germany. All the components and sensors are in but at the beginning, we will operate with a safety driver. That's the first step.

It’s really exciting, cutting-edge technology. It’s still very new in a developing market but the market is there. There are a lot of cities, communities, and airports that are interested. Wherever we go, we see that the need is there. We plan to launch the first next-generation shuttles without the safety driver with a production ramp-up scheduled for 2026.

Is it different from your average EV in terms of sustainability?

Yes and no, it’s a fully electric vehicle with a battery system. It’s part of our strategy at ZF to become carbon neutral by 2040, so earlier than the EU’s goal of 2050. That means that we need to make our production process carbon-neutral. Vehicles will be produced with green energy and green steel so the vehicle itself will become carbon neutral.

For cities and other customer groups, implementing an electric shuttle is one puzzle piece, to reach total carbon neutrality. For London, transportation is a big area of improvement, it needs to do something there. Electric buses are already one solution. But we want to look at the bigger picture and make sure production, as well as use, is carbon neutral.

How would adopting the shuttle be different from, for example, ICE (internal combustion engine) or EVs (electric vehicles)?

We are benchmarking this vehicle against other modes of transport. I have to say, ICE vehicles are already out of the picture. Customers who are talking to us about the shuttle need to get rid of their ICE vehicles. So an electric bus is one benchmark, another is rail. Airports are also considering whether they can switch to this kind of system from their monorails.

Secondly, we’re looking into the total cost of ownership; that’s what matters at the end of the day for fleet operators. If you consider a time period spanning over 15-20 years, for example, how much will it cost? We had a discussion with an airport. They said: “We’ve had our monorail in place for 15-20 years, I need a replacement, either rail or a shuttle system. I want to see a calculation for the same timeframe. How much does it cost over a longer period of time?”

So those are the calculations we look at. If we look at operating costs, where maintenance is a big issue, we calculate and guarantee a price per year. This is important for the operator so that they can also project their expenditure. Especially if they are public operators, this is important.

Overall, the system is no more expensive than an electric bus or rail system, probably the opposite actually.  You have just one person in the control room for six shuttles. But to make it clear again, it’s not to replace driver’s jobs, it actually accounts for the driver shortage, which is forcing the industry to consider other options anyway.

Are there other roles, other than working in a control room, that remaining drivers could adopt?

Currently, the law states when you are starting a shuttle, you need to inspect the vehicle just like you would with an aeroplane. So that is a task that will need to be performed. The roles will probably be different from what we have today, so it’s not that jobs disappear, other roles will develop.

In terms of maintenance, in the future, it will be a lot more about predictive analytics. We will get a lot of data from these vehicles and know when to fix them ahead of issues. It’s the only way to guarantee a high level of uptime, which needs to be 90%.

When adopting new forms of transportation, like autonomous shuttles or electric vehicles, sometimes the infrastructure is not there. What does the shuttle need specifically before everything can run smoothly?

Our approach is a little different to other players in the market; our intention is to bring a full package to the customer, because as a technology leader, ZF sees itself not only as a shuttle supplier but also as a partner for the entire life cycle of its shuttles. Therefore we also offer consultation regarding the route design, the design domain, the shuttle design, how many stops are needed, and whether opportunity charging is needed or if overnight charging in the depot is enough. It’s really important for us to close the circle with service packages afterwards.

You might invest in a shuttle solution and then operate it for 15-20 years. We must make sure that the system of mobility stays up and running, the maintenance takes place as it should, and assistance is given with technology. A lot of people say things like: “I want to have it but I don’t want to touch it because I have no experience. Can you send your guys? Can you consult me on how to set up a depot?” Just think, the shuttles might operate 20-24 hours a day. So it’s not like when you drive your car and then take it to a mechanic. Sometimes these vehicles may need to be maintained overnight.

In terms of what infrastructure is needed, we consult on charging. Charging is a topic on its own for a lot of our customers. You also need to have an operator, and by law there needs to be a human being that is at least supervising the shuttles. You might have one human being supervising six different shuttles. For that, you need an operating room, you need to have the IT infrastructure, you need traffic lights and other infrastructural features. That’s all part of it. It’s not just a vehicle, it’s a whole system – an autonomous transport system.

What would you say is the main challenge for fleet operators when adopting a shuttle system?

There are three topics. One of them is the fact that legislation is not in place yet, but it will come. Our governments are working on it as everyone can see this is our future and we need to get there. Europe can be in the driver’s seat for this as we started earlier than other regions.

Another challenge is that you need to plan solidly at the beginning. It’s not a plug-in-and-play solution. You need to plan your routes, which also involves engineers looking into what is required infrastructurally. This is something we support, we don’t leave the customer to do it alone. If you do proper planning in the beginning, then it’s much easier than just jumping in and then realising you needed more charging points or more stops later down the line. You also need to figure out where you’ll source the energy from, how you’ll maintain the vehicles, and so on.

A third topic we should not forget is the people. I was sitting inside, travelling 40 km/h, and well, it’s interesting. We’re so used to sitting in a car or on a bus, but this is different. The interest of the population in this topic is given, as already proven by numerous surveys. A 2022 study conducted in collaboration between the management and IT consultancy MHP, Frauenhofer IAO and Motorpresse, Stuttgart as research partner showed that 70% of people worldwide would go without their own car if shared autonomous mobility systems met their expectations.

To round off, what do you think the main incentive is for fleet operators to adopt this system?

I would say it's a combination of several incentives.

The driver shortage will get serious for everybody if it’s not already. Decarbonisation is moving everybody towards electrification. And the third topic is a lot of cities, mayors, and relevant politicians want to get individual traffic out of the city centres.

We don’t want to be stuck in traffic all the time. If you want to change that and motivate people to take public transportation, you need to make it attractive. Part of the attraction of it is the rhythm, the frequency.

You cannot fulfil that with big buses. These shuttles are built for transportation on demand. Our vision is that you can be standing at the stop and there’s a button. You push that button and it comes. Maybe at rush hour, it’s a fixed rhythm but then after 9am until 3pm, it’s on demand. I realise a lot of others share this vision, so we continue moving towards it. It’s about transportation as a service and mobility as a service.

Conclusion

With a wave of commercially trained driver shortages hitting both Europe and the US, many organisations cannot fulfil their responsibilities to the maximum capacity. Due to this, more investment is being made into hiring and training drivers, than into necessary vehicle maintenance and the adoption of new technology that could hugely streamline fleet management processes.

ZF’s autonomous shuttle represents a solution to the problem of driver shortages, that allows fleets to adopt the latest technology, all while contributing to a carbon-neutral future.

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Alice is one of Expert Market's resident software experts, helping businesses improve their efficiency or reach, with an emphasis on productivity software, CRM and telecommunications.