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Autonomous tech focus at new ZF TRW Farmington facility

Ian Thibodeau
The Detroit News

Farmington Hills — One engineer guides a sedan through a simulated European street, while another merges onto I-696 in a station wagon.

A camera on the first vehicle detects a bicyclist only a few feet away and brings the car to a screeching halt as the test dummy slides past the vehicle; in the second car, the engineer takes his hands off the wheel and foot off the pedals as the car accelerates and changes lanes using only sensors and radars.

Emergency braking systems being tested Monday at ZF TRW’s Farmington Hills facility will first be deployed in Europe, where the European Union seeks autonomous safety technology for roads with “a lot of pedestrians, a lot of cyclists and very crowded city streets,” spokesman John Wilkerson said.

These are two of the experiments Livonia-based automotive supply company ZF TRW runs outside of its technical center building off 12 Mile in Farmington Hills, where the company recently moved.

The supplier is focused on safety systems and technology pushed by the rapidly developing global autonomous driving market.

The 171,000-square-foot building houses office space and laboratories for ZF TRW’s global electronics team. That team focuses on developing cameras, censors, radars and software for autonomous driving systems. The systems range from adaptive cruise control and features that alert drivers if they veer out of their lane, to emergency braking systems such as the one demonstrated Monday in the parking lot at ZF TRW’s new facility.

“They’re not just working on things for America,” said John Wilkerson, spokesman for ZF TRW. “They’re working globally.”

The emergency braking systems being tested Monday, for example, will first be deployed in Europe, where the European Union has called for autonomous technology to make roads safer that are shared with “a lot of pedestrians, a lot of cyclists and very crowded city streets,” Wilkerson said.

ZF TRW is working on semi-autonomous highway driving in the U.S. aimed at drivers who do most of their driving on long commutes.

Andy Whydell, director of product planning and global systems, said the autonomous highway systems should be available in some cars around 2018.

The systems ZF TRW engineers work on are “a way of being able to prevent distracted drivers from impacting the people around them,” Whydell said.

The new building houses 600 electronics engineers. ZF TRW plans to hire 150 more. The company spent $30 million to buy and renovate the building.

According to Mark Stewart, executive vice president of operations at ZF TRW, the company wants the new facility to attract younger engineers entering the workforce. Updated labs and offices are a selling point, he said, as the company continues to expand its work in driver assist systems.

About a year and a half after ZF Friedrichshafen AG acquired Livonia-based TRW Automotive in a $12.4-billion all-cash purchase, Stewart said the company is doing well.

Matt Jazwiecki in the 'Focus Scoring' lab, evaluating the quality of a camera's focus. Automotive supplier ZF TRW opening an Advanced Electronics technical center, showing off some of their present technology, in Farmington Hills, Michigan on October 24, 2016. (The Detroit News/ Daniel Mears)

ZF TRW employs more than 130,000 worldwide, including 5,000 in Michigan — 1,400 at ZF’s North American headquarters and two manufacturing facilities in Lapeer and Marysville; and 3,500 at more than 10 ZF TRW facilities.

Before the acquisition, TRW made engine and safety parts, such as seat belts and air bags. ZF specialized in transmissions and steering systems, as well as other automotive components. ZF TRW is now a separate business division of ZF, which is headquartered in Friedrichshafen, Germany.

The combined ZF Group now has hands-in design, development and supply of advanced safety electronics products, which include driver assist environmental sensing and control systems, occupant safety electronics and radio frequency products, as well as advanced electronics for steering and brake control systems.

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Twitter: @Ian_Thibodeau