By Andrew Ganz

Computers aren’t universally smarter than we are, but they’re getting close. They lack emotion—Siri is not actually your friend—but they may be able to save more lives. The computers that will power self-driving cars of the future will be able to calculate better decisions that could protect drivers, pedestrians, and even passengers in other cars.

We’re in the early stages of self-driving cars, but an autonomous future isn’t too far away. We recently had the opportunity to spend some time with German automotive supplier ZF, which is rapidly assembling a portfolio of cutting edge self-driving car tech both on its own and by swallowing up smaller firms for their innovative prototype ideas.

ZF’s Vision Zero concept vehicle

ZF has developed a prototype vehicle it calls Vision Zero; that’s for zero emissions and zero accidents. It’s a vehicle that can be operated by a human or, at the press of the button, computers take over and the “driver” can then take a nap or catch up on e-mail correspondence. It’s loaded with technologies that allow it to accelerate, steer, and brake by itself while avoiding impacts.

Ignore the bland looks of its prototype, an off-the-shelf European-market Volkswagen Touran van. Instead, let’s focus on what this testbed has hidden from sight.

ZF’s distracted driver technology

Watching you

The Vision Zero prototype is loaded with cameras and sensors both inside and out designed to prevent any possibility of a mistake both when a human is at the controls or when the vehicle is driving itself. Around 3,500 fatalities annually in the U.S. can be traced to drivers paying attention to something other than the road ahead. ZF hopes to trim that devastating figure substantially.

Inside the concept van, a camera watches the driver’s face. Should the human lose concentration—falling asleep or diverting their eyes to their phone, for instance—the Vision Zero van sounds an alert and tugs the seat belt first and then takes over the reins if there’s no reaction. Today, some cars may warn a driver if their increasingly erratic driving looks like fatigue, but they can’t take over.

Even if the driver is competent but mistakenly enters a freeway against the flow of traffic, an experimental wrong-way inhibit function takes over the controls. For now, the function stops the car dead in its tracks and turns on its hazard lights until the driver manually turns the vehicle around, but future systems could potentially pull the car off the road. The system could even communicate with road infrastructure in the future to improve traffic flow in carpool lanes that reverse direction depending on the time of day.

ZF’s Wrong-Way Inhibit function

It’s a better driver than you are

The Vision Zero concept can process and see more than the human brain and eye are capable of. Sensors watch every aspect of the road ahead, including what’s behind objects. Imagine a bicyclist obscured by a large truck. Neither the biker nor the driver can see one another, but the Vision Zero van is aware and can automatically brake the vehicle if it detects an impending impact.

It’s this more advanced automatic emergency braking system that takes what’s on many of today’s cars to another level. While most new cars can apply the brakes on their own if they sense that a driver isn’t doing enough, the Vision Zero van can also steer itself out of the way of an object. Moreover, its sensors are watching everything around it and can decide the smartest direction to go to avoid or at least mitigate the damage caused by an impact.

Self-driving test vehicle built by ZF

On the Vision Zero concept, a trick rear-wheel steering system dramatically improves maneuverability in both high- and low-speed situations. Not only does this help the car feel more stable at highway speeds, it reduces the amount of road space needed to avoid objects, humans, and even animals.

Taking care of everyone else

Since crashes may be unavoidable as long as humans are still at the helm, ZF says that future cars could be made better aware of their own limitations. A car’s access points—like its doors—represent an inherent structural weakness compared to the roof pillars that hold things together. Self-driving cars of the future could re-position themselves to better protect occupants ahead of a wreck. According to ZF, current technology could allow a car to move to a better position in as few as 200 milliseconds.

Cars can already detect and brake for pedestrians and larger animals if an impact is inevitable. But ZF says it is testing airbags built into a vehicle’s exterior panels to protect unpredictable pedestrians. Even the fastest-processing computers may not be able to account for a pedestrian’s last-second poor decision to dart into traffic, but airbags embedded on the outside of a vehicle could inflate in nanoseconds to reduce the risk of injuries.

The road to full autonomy still has many hurdles, but ZF’s Vision Zero shows us how self-driving cars will be both convenient and safe.

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