ZF Calls An Autonomous Audible
Truck OEMs and suppliers are notoriously tight-lipped about their future plans and designs — particularly when it comes to the hyper-competitive race to develop autonomous cars and trucks. But every now and then, you get a little glimmer of what’s going on behind the scenes on various R&D fronts. And those insights are usually fascinating.
That was the case last month at the CES 2023 trade show in Las Vegas. I was sitting in on an informal press briefing hosted by Tier I supplier ZF when one of those little information nuggets turned up.
The briefing, hosted by ZF Board Director Martin Fischer and a host of engineers and designers, predictably covered a wide array of topics ranging from the new concept of a “software-defined vehicle,” to EVs to beefed up onboard electronic control modules to — of course — autonomous vehicles.
At some point in the briefing one of the engineers mentioned in passing that ZF was working on autonomous control sensors that would pick up and identify sounds around the vehicle and process them as a way of more accurately determining what was going on around it. In other words, sensors that will allow an autonomous car or truck to “hear” the world around it, in addition to “seeing” through the eyes of cameras, and radar and lidar sensors.
It was a comment that brought me up short. Because I’ve been covering the development of autonomous vehicles since 2015 (at least). And in that entire time, I can’t recall anyone ever mentioning or suggesting that autonomous systems ought to “listen” to their surroundings as a way to enhance safety and efficiency.
And my second thought was that this was one of the most blindingly obvious things I’d heard in the entire time I’ve been covering autonomous truck technology! D’uh! OF COURSE, autonomous vehicles should be designed to listen to their surrounds and react appropriately to what they “hear!”
The ZF engineer went on to say that the sensors ZF is working on will be able to pick up a wide array of common roadway noises — police vehicles, ambulances and other emergency vehicles. But it also would be able to “hear” human voices (shouts and warnings, presumably) and ambient noises by other vehicles (backup warning beepers and other audible alerts).
It’s funny how most of us instantly gasp at the idea of sensors that can take in visual information. But we don’t immediately consider the audible aspect of a vehicle’s environment. Which is odd, considering how voice and sound recognition technology has advanced over the past decade or so. We routinely speak text messages or other commands to our phones or assistant devices like Siri. We “talk” to robots on customer service lines every day. I speak into my TV remote when I want to see the Alabama Crimson Tide play football, for example.
So why wouldn’t vehicle designers use that same technology to add extra layers of safety to autonomous vehicle systems?
As I said, it’s an obvious enhancement that can pay big safety dividends right away. And it stands to reason that — given the voice recognition functions I just mentioned — that simply “hearing” the world around an autonomous truck is only the beginning of the potential this technology holds.
I suspect that these systems could easily be trained to recognize human commands or warnings. Or even take instructions: STOP! is the most obvious. But a law enforcement officer could direct the vehicle to pull off the road and park. A truck stop attendant could direct it to a service bay. A technician could simply command a truck to open up its engine bay or run a diagnostic check. The possibilities are endless.
There obviously will have to be some sort of authenticator code or sound, to let the truck know the commands are legitimate. We can’t have bored teenagers yelling “STOP!” every time they see a self-driving car or truck coming down the road, for example. But that ought to be a fairly easy obstacle to overcome.
It’s easy to see how introducing both the ability to pick up and process sounds and voice recognition technologies could further enhance the already impressive capabilities autonomous vehicle systems have and will soon offer North American fleets.
These technologies will make the interface between humans and autonomous trucks easier to navigate, while bolstering safety and both fleet and vehicle efficiencies.