By Craig Cole

Automotive supplier company ZF revealed a new engineering concept car that aims to eliminate tailpipe emissions and put an end to accidents, all while making life easier for motorists.

These are some high-minded goals, ones that may never actually be attained, but a tall mountain hasn’t deterred the company from climbing, and for good reason. Globally, it’s estimated that nearly 1.3 million people die each year in traffic accidents, so there’s huge potential to save lives.

“The exact path to achieving Vision Zero is not exactly clear,” said Peter Lake, member of ZF’s board of directors while speaking at the company’s 2017 Global Press Event. “But the general direction is clear,” he added, even if timing and legislative issues haven’t been sorted out yet.

Monitoring driver distraction, keeping itself moving in the right direction, and minimizing environmental impact are just a few things ZF’s Vision Zero Vehicle can do. An engineering prototype, it showcases some of the Bavarian firm’s latest and greatest technology.

Perhaps best known for its advanced transmissions, this company manufactures far more than just gears. In fact, ZF offers OEM customers a huge array of products ranging from braking assemblies and chassis components to fleet monitoring software and integrated safety systems.

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Look past the gaudy stickers plastered all over its body and you might notice the Vision Zero Vehicle’s foundation, assuming you’re up on the latest European people haulers. Engineers started with a Volkswagen Touran MPV and went to town, transforming into nothing less than a roadgoing spaceship. Development work involved around 100 people and took roughly 18 months. If that sounds like an awfully long time to build a concept car you’d be right, but this vehicle is loaded with more cutting-edge technology than an Apple keynote.

And one of the Vision Zero Vehicle’s headline features is called Driver Distraction Assist. With an interior camera that captures 3D video and works in a range of lighting conditions, it can tell where the driver is looking and whether they’re paying attention to the important task at hand.

If a driver glances down to adjust the radio, read a text message or do something else, the vehicle can steer itself, remaining safely in its lane of travel. Of course, ZF’s Vision Zero Vehicle will also warn the driver about their dangerous distraction, acoustically, visually or with a tug on the seatbelt. If that fails to get their attention, this car even brings itself safely to a stop, preventing a potential crash.

This technology could be extremely useful on today’s roads, as it’s estimated that motorists are distracted 52 percent of the time they’re behind the wheel, which is more than half! In 2015, nearly 3,500 people died in the U.S. alone because of distracted driving, underscoring how large this problem is.

Another dangerous though less frequently reported roadway hazard is the wrong-way driver, someone that goes the improper direction on a highway. Using GPS map data and traffic-sign recognition, the Vision Zero Vehicle can nip these incidents in the bud before tragedy strikes. If it detects that you’re heading one way when you should be going the other, it will give audio, visual and haptic warnings, just like with Driver Distraction Assist. But if that’s not enough, it can briefly reduce steering boost to provide an even stronger indication that something is amiss. Finally, if the driver ignores all these warnings the vehicle can ultimately pull itself over and stop. Should this happen, the vehicle will only drive in reverse.

Enabling these advanced driver-assistance features is a wide range of cutting-edge electronics. The Vision Zero Vehicle has both a forward-looking optical camera assembly and radar array; it’s equipped with an interior camera, electrically boosted power steering, a vacuum-less brake booster and untold lines of software code to tie all these elements together. Despite its roots making gears, Lake noted, “We’re not a dinosaur. We want to be in the vanguard,” which is why ZF is focusing on so many future technologies.

Another significant innovation worth highlighting is this concept’s integrated drivetrain. Engineers ripped the Touran’s internal-combustion propulsion system out and replaced it with a purely electric arrangement, one centered around ZF’s new mSTARS axle assembly. If you’re curious, that stands for modular semi-trailing arm rear suspension.

Mounted under the Touran’s cargo area, this assembly sends torque to the aft tires. Saving significant amounts of space, the electric motor, two-stage gear drive, differential and power-electronics are all packaged into one space-saving unit that delivers 150 kW of giddy up. This system is ready to go and can be applied to hybrid, fuel-cell, EVs and even conventionally powered vehicles where it could provide all-wheel drive without the cost and expense of running a driveshaft to the rear wheels.

But another benefit of the mSTARS assembly is that it also provides rear-wheel steering. The Vision Zero Vehicle’s back tires can pivot up to 7 degrees in either direction, enabling tighter turns at low speed and very comfortable maneuvers while on the highway. In-phase steering – when the front and rear wheels turn in the same direction – results in a smooth gliding motion while changing lanes. Experiencing this first hand it feels somewhat strange as the vehicle almost seems to be sliding sideways, but the smoothness is soon appreciated.

SEE ALSO: Why Mercedes-Benz Has Better Self-Driving Technology Than Tesla

Naturally, the sensors and software that enable these advanced driver-assistance amenities also allow autonomous operation; yes, the Vision Zero Vehicle can drive itself, at least on a closed course under controlled conditions.

But if that’s not enough, it can also read the road, see bumps and potholes ahead and react by tensioning the seatbelts. For added convenience, there’s also an automatic lift feature that elevates the rear belt buckles, making it, for instance, easier to safely accommodate a small child in a booster seat so you don’t have to fish for a buckle that’s buried in the seat cushion.

Finally, helping improve efficiency is ZF’s new Integrated Brake Controller, which uses an electric motor instead of vacuum – something that’s lacking in electric vehicles – to help operate the vehicle’s binders. This technology, which is slated to enter production next year with a major automaker, can also be used to improve the efficiency of vehicles powered by internal-combustion engines.

ZF’s Vision Zero Vehicle provides a glimpse into the future. The company’s goal of eliminating crashes and emissions is still an ambitious one, but this concept car illustrates how automakers could begin making major reductions in each of these areas. “It’s a journey, not a destination,” said Lake. “It’s not a short-term thing,” rather something they’ll be pushing for years to come.

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