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With 2017 sales of $42.5 billion, ZF has been targeting expansion in global markets including North America, reinvesting nearly 10% of that amount in plants, equipment, engineering, product development and other areas. The company is leveraging its large footprint as an automotive supplier and product knowledge to grow its expanding commercial product business.

Internally, what ZF calls its “T Division” (signifying “Transportation”) combines all its commercial truck and bus business activities. That includes its driveline, chassis, steering, axle and transmission systems and technology as well as advanced safety systems for commercial vehicles.

PowerLine transmission

Drawing from its 8-speed passenger car automatic already in wide use in vehicles like the Ram 1500 pickup, BMW X5 and Porsche Panamera—some 50 million units have been produced over the last 10 years—ZF showcased its coming PowerLine automatic transmission designed for Class 5-8 commercial vehicles up to 57,000 lbs combined weight, though use in lighter classes also is possible. The company says it’s “ideal” for applications ranging from HD pickups to beverage and distribution trucks to school buses.

“We are using our 8-speed gear concepts and the developed intelligence of the product and bringing it to commercial vehicles,” explained Christian Feldhaus, senior product manager of sales at ZF. “We are reusing mechatronic components which are the ‘brain’ of the transmission,” he said, “and are leveraging that to make commercial vehicles more intelligent.”

Weighing in at 330 lbs. and able to handle up to 1,000 lbs.-ft. of engine torque, the PowerLine transmission offers weight savings up to 45% and up to 10% better fuel economy than comparable 6-speed commercial automatics and “surpasses most other systems with up to ten gears in key criteria for the CV segment,” according to ZF. The product is slated for launch in North America and Europe in 2020.

A 2015 Ram 1500 loaded with a water tank to 12,000 lbs. to simulate a medium-duty commercial vehicle was fitted with a test unit of ZF’s coming PowerLine automatic transmission, set for launch in 2020.

Benefits ZF claims of its PowerLine commercial vehicle transmission include:

  • Up to 30% faster acceleration thanks to multi-skip shift capability
  • Reduced noise and vibration for less driver fatigue
  • Dual-side power take off capability of 485 lbs.-ft. of torque available at all engine speeds
  • Single electrical connection and fully integrated control module for installation/ maintenance ease and increased reliability
  • Optional transmission-mounted oil cooler with lifetime filter
  • Extended fluid change intervals
  • Smart software-enabled control features such as adaptive starting gear, maneuvering mode and “rock control” that can bounce between forward and reverse gears to free up trucks stuck in mud, snow, etc.

ZF’s Christian Feldhaus

“We basically used our experienced ‘brain’ and gave it stronger muscles,” Feldhaus said. “It enables us to serve nearly every application, even if we are talking about tough off-road or vocational applications.”

ReAX electric power steering assist system

“The three years since we acquired TRW, looking back, have been very successful,” said Mitja Schulz, SVP and head of commercial vehicle technology for North America at ZF, referencing ZF’s acquisition of TRW Automotive in 2015. In combining the companies, he explained, ZF’s approach was to keep the “best of both” in terms of products, processes and market strengths.

ZF’s Mitja Schulz

That includes TRW’s ReAX adaptive electric power steering assist system designed to work in combination with hydraulic pumps to reduce steering effort and fuel consumption. ReAX is also the basis of a product ZF has in development and let reporters experience here in Indianapolis called OnTraX, an active lane-keeping assistance system for heavy-duty commercial vehicles.

ReAX systems are already in use in some 25,000 transit buses and motor homes. The system can be steering column- or gear-mounted; it uses an electric motor and torque/ angle sensors to apply a variable amount of power steering assistance. ZF intends to launch the product for Class 8 applications around the third quarter next year.

“We’re keeping the hydraulic power that commercial vehicles need,” Cartwright said. “This is an overlaid system where you’re utilizing smart controls that’ve already been developed on top of hydraulic power” that’s designed, simply put, to make the vehicle easier to drive and more efficient.

It does that by delivering various amounts of electric power steering boost, supplementing and simultaneously reducing the need for hydraulic power. That can be further enhanced by using ZF’s hydraulic steering pumps, which are available for a range of applications and can reduce and blend hydraulic and electric power the system draws upon.

It’s such a dramatic difference than hydraulic power steering alone—to which Fleet Ownercan attest after demoing the system in Class 8 trucks—that ReAX allowed the use of 16-in. passenger car-style steering wheels in transit buses in place of traditional large-diameter plastic steering wheels. Transit fleets that employed the ReAX system had drivers giving feedback that they were able to stop taking prescription pain meds “just to sleep at night after their shift,” Cartwright said.

ZF contends some benefits of the system include:

  • Reduced driver fatigue, including physical fatigue from low-speed maneuvers and mental fatigue due to increased controllability/ reduced concentration needed to steer the vehicle at high speeds
  • System automatically senses and adapts for crosswind control and “crowning” where the road angle through bends and turns leaves drivers having to continually increase steering correction
  • Safer operation thanks to better low-speed maneuverability
  • Improved driver retention and recruitment since trucks are easier to operate and result in better quality of life/ less physical strain

The ReAX system can drive further advancements in safety and fuel efficiency, including via ZF’s heavy duty lane-keeping assist OnTrax system, which will be launched at a date yet to be determined. It’s enabled via cameras, radar and other sensors and can track lane lines to monitor for drivers drifting out of their lane, guiding the truck back into the lane by varying steering torque to correct.

“We want to make it non-intrusive,” Cartwright said. “We want to make it very helpful, very natural.”

ZF’s e-ActivMode hydraulic power steering pumps can also be used in conjunction with ReAX for enhanced fuel savings. The hydraulic pump’s rate can be reduced as electric power is blended in from the ReAX system in what the company calls “eco-Cruise” mode.

ZF’s Mark Cartwright

Further, Cartwright explained that fleets are looking into “sailing”: shutting off the truck’s engine altogether instead of using a Jake brake when the truck is going downhill or approaching a reduced speed limit.

In order to do that safely, some steering is still needed to control the vehicle, and the ReAX system can sub in for limited amounts of time entirely in place of hydraulic power steering to provide that control. ZF said it’s developing this capability, which it calls “eco-Coast,” in response to fleet interest.