ZF’s vision of sustainable next-generation mobility 

ZF has developed smart technologies with advanced core intelligence that it says bring safe, automated and electrified vehicles to new levels.

An emergency drill onboard AIDAsol cruise ship in 2019. Image: MikhailBerkut / Shutterstock.com


s the big automotive suppliers (tier 1s) contemplate megatrends that are impacting the transport space and automotive sectors, they are having to think way beyond their traditional product spaces. ZF is one such company and is working across the full spectrum of passenger cars, commercial and industrial vehicles, through to autonomous transport systems with its shuttle business to bring automation to urban and rural environments. 

In many ways, fully autonomous vehicles are the ultimate destination for ADAS tech as it develops further and human inputs to driving are reduced. It’s closer than you think, but it’s perhaps not quite morphing from your private car.

Andrew Whydell, Vice President, Product Planning, Vehicle Systems, ZF, provided us with an update on ZF’s shuttles. 

Autonomous shuttles 

We’ve moved on a long way from specializing in gearboxes. In 2022, ZF still makes transmissions, but it also sees itself as a full-service autonomous transportation system provider offering not only autonomous shuttles but also project planning, implementation, operation, and maintenance/service of autonomous passenger transportation systems. Andrew Whydell points out that ZF has carried out recent demonstrations of ZF autonomous transportation system shuttles in the UK and the US.


ZF also has a dedicated operation to develop this business – the wholly-owned 2getthere business, which runs autonomous shuttles in places like Abu Dhabi and Rotterdam. “We are also currently launching the RABus project, deploying and researching electric bus shuttles up to autonomous level 4,” he says. “This will take place in Germany in Mannheim (focus: mixed inner-city traffic) and Friedrichshafen (focus: overland operation) with a local public transport operation with electrified and automated vehicles, among other things with attractive travel speeds, and is to be tested by the end of 2023.” 

The technology that comes with these Level 4 shuttles is extensive. There is a need for full 360-degree coverage of the environment, which entails a sensor suite that embraces cameras, radars and LiDAR. Consideration also must be given to processing the large volumes of data generated in real-time. ZF employs its ProAI high-performance computing platform that it claims is “among the highest echelons of such devices in the mobility industry to process this data and manage the operation of the vehicle.” 

Although current use cases are mainly in limited applications with restricted access – such as university campuses or airports, ZF believes that autonomous operation shuttles will expand in use over the next decade. Whydell again: “We see significant expansions into first/last-mile fixed-route transport applications, especially those that require close to 24/7 operation so have the most attractive business cases for operators, and ultimately to mixed-traffic inner-city applications and linking cities to rural areas to help reduce traffic flow and provide a safe and comfortable ride to work and other activities.” 

It's a vision of future mobility that is greener, safer and more efficient than today, but also mapped differently in term of software and associated required hardware. Indeed, today’s polarisation of transport to mass public transport versus privately owned vehicles is likely set for a shake-up as AV shuttles open up new possibilities. “AV shuttles will be a key enabler to transform the current public transport system, in particular in times when we face shortages of bus drivers,” notes Whydell. 

There’s a collaborative principle at work, too. ZF recognises that all stakeholders need to work together on future mobility plans as the technology develops. “The implementation of AV shuttles also requires close collaboration with regional/city planners to plan routes and discuss the infrastructure and other requirements and then design the right Autonomous Transport System for their needs, Whydell says. “In ten years we can envisage AV shuttles being a much more common feature in the local transportation system, for both people and goods movements.”

ZF and DB Regio agree on strategic partnership for autonomous transport systems 

An indication of the pace of change in this area is offered by a partnership between DB Region and ZF announced in October 2021. The aim is to bring highly automated and autonomous bus shuttles onto the roads in Germany more quickly. Both companies see opportunities in using driverless shuttle systems.

According to estimates by DB Regio – the market leader in Germany's public transport sector – more than 30,000 highly automated or autonomous shuttle buses will be needed in Germany by 2035 to strengthen local public transport (ÖPNV) for the future. The focus is on regions and cities that already rely on the services of DB Regio and do not operate their own public transport – but also on co-operations with large cities and districts as well as new areas of application such as airports or amusement parks.

"With its many years of expertise in local-specific issues of urban, municipal and inter-municipal passenger transport, DB Regio is the ideal partner for us to offer our autonomous shuttle systems to regions, cities and municipalities as a tailor-made service in each case," says Torsten Gollewski, Executive Vice President Autonomous Mobility Systems at ZF.

ZF says that highly automated and autonomous systems will first become established in public transport and commercial vehicles. The ZF subsidiary 2getthere, which develops and produces the ZF shuttles, has been operating such shuttle systems for over 20 years. They have now covered more than 100 million kilometres autonomously and transported more than 14 million people with more than 99 percent system availability.


"Not least on the basis of these performance data and our high-quality standards in the automotive mass market, DB Regio has chosen us as a strategic partner for the development and commissioning of autonomous mobility solutions," says Gollewski. "The trust spurs us on to expand our track record."

"We are already integrating autonomous vehicles into local public transport and are thus actively promoting the mobility revolution and climate protection. With ZF, DB Regio Bus has a strong technology partner at its side to strengthen public transport with electric, autonomous and flexible shuttle buses. We are thus pursuing a common goal: to relieve the roads in conurbations, cities and communities and to make local public transport emission-free," says Frank Klingenhöfer, Member of the Board of Management of DB Regio Bus. "Autonomous vehicles must be as reliable and safe as possible in order to be used in regular service. The autonomous buses and the technologies used in them by ZF are trend-setting in this respect. In the coming years, the aim is to bring shuttles onto the market that can already travel at up to 40 km/h today – and at higher speeds in intercity traffic in the future."

In autumn 2017, DB implemented autonomous driving in local public transport and on public roads in Bad Birnbach for the first time in Germany. Since then, the shuttles have brought more than 60,000 passengers to their destinations in regular service with fixed schedules. In particular, the connection to the train station has improved the connection to CO2 friendly rail. As a technology driver for new mobility, Deutsche Bahn has been involved in autonomous buses in various cities and regions in Germany for several years.

ZF says it is contributing its entire expertise as a system supplier for highly automated and autonomous shuttle solutions as well as its comprehensive service network to the cooperation. In close cooperation with DB Regio, this includes project planning, routing, commissioning, and maintenance of the shuttles as well as a wide range of services for them. DB Regio takes over the complete operation of the mobility solution.

The first series projects, all of which are based on concrete requests from cities or municipalities, have already been identified. With RABus, a funding project of the state of Baden-Württemberg that is scheduled to run until 2024, the two partners in Mannheim and Friedrichshafen are already on their way to implementing the shuttle applications in a residential area or in inner-city, suburban and intercity transport. 

Swamy Kotagiri

CEO, Magna International