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ZF Presents Middleware and Establishes Global Software Center

The vehicle of the future will feature high levels of networking and automation defined by software. But a “software-defined car” (or semi-truck) is much more than a ”smartphone on wheels” even if the vehicle operation increasingly resembles that of a smartphone.

The difference is the quality and quantity of hardware systems that need to be intelligently connected by a software platform to help move people comfortably and safely.

In a preview to CES 2021, ZF presented its new middleware. This open software platform is a “mediator” between a vehicle computer’s operating system and its software applications. Key functions of the middleware are the abstraction of computing hardware from software applications and the communication between these applications.

“The new ZF middleware underpins ZF’s claim to be one of the world’s leading system suppliers for the software-defined car of the future”, says Dr. Dirk Walliser, Senior Vice President Research & Development, Innovation & Technology at ZF. “Our customers benefit from accelerated development processes and significantly reduced complexity when integrating hardware and software. Throughout the vehicle’s lifetime functions can be updated or additionally offered on-demand.”

As a comprehensive software platform, the ZF middleware will be available in series vehicles from 2024. Its development is closely connected to the development of application software for mobility domains like automated driving, integrated safety, vehicle motion control, and electric mobility.

System Solutions for the Software-Defined Car

Bits and bytes have been allowing vehicle components to communicate with each other for almost five decades since the first electronic control units (ECUs) were installed in cars in the 1970s. Today, vehicles may have up to 100 different ECUs. Each of them includes its own software.

Software, functions, smart systems: ZF is a unique system solutions provider across hardware and software, bringing the software-defined car to life.

In new and future vehicle platforms, the electric and electronic architecture (E/E architecture) will change dramatically. Software functions move away from decentralized controllers towards a centralized system with only a few dedicated domain control units (DCUs), e.g. for automated driving functions. All these software applications benefit from a smoothly integrated middleware platform managing system integration.

Middleware Reduces Complexity for System Integration

Being a connector to the software applications and the hardware components of a vehicle, only the middleware needs to be connected to the operating system. This approach minimizes the interfaces, guarantees fast communication with all parts of the system, and can help to significantly reduce the complexity of system integration for the OEM.

As a “mediator”, the ZF middleware enables efficient communication from software functions to hardware components. It provides independence and compatibility to make vehicle platforms future proof.

The same principle applies to the development of hardware components. The middleware simplifies their flexible integration into vehicles providing communication in “one universal language”. It “translates” and standardizes the communication between the vehicle’s different hard- and software layers.

Implications for the Heavy-Duty Industry

As ZF develops this technology primarily for the automotive industry, it is clear with their acquisition of WABCO in 2020 that they will be using this technology in the heavy-duty truck and other vocational industries like agriculture, logging, mining, and oil and gas as well.

ZF technology will be used in commercial vehicles as well.

Commercial vehicles will continue to be advanced with autonomous and electric technology that will require these kinds of integrated hardware and software solutions. In a world where autonomous semi-trucks drive past us while we are sitting in our autonomous cars working or playing on our devices, we will also see our farming technology be impacted.

Imagine a farm that no longer requires people to spend 14-hours a day hand picking potatoes out of the ground. Yes, I actually did that as a 13-year-old farmhand in the 1990s. Instead, autonomous equipment will work 24-hours a day increasing the yield and capacity of every farm. It is with technology like ZFs that these semi-science fiction type scenarios will become a reality.

Accelerated and Improved Processes

The open hard- and software architecture enables an accelerated and improved development process between ZF, vehicle manufacturers, and other partners – from the first step of development and during the entire lifetime of the vehicle.

As a result, vehicle manufacturers and end customers benefit from innovative vehicle functions that are always state-of-the-art. Depending on the OEM’s software architecture, ZF  offers a modular approach with its middleware from a full platform solution to single modules that can be integrated into the OEM’s software platform.

Thanks to its own scalable ZF ProAI supercomputing platform for next-generation vehicles, ZF is capable of providing traditional and New Automotive Customers with comprehensive systems comprising software, computing, and sensor hardware as well as connected actuators.

Global Software Center to be Established in 2021

ZF has prepared for these new challenges in the triad of software, functions, and smart systems and is proactively pursuing numerous development processes by establishing a Global Software Center at the turn of the year that will be headed by Dr. Nico Hartmann, Vice President, Software Solutions & Global Software Center.

“Our Global Software Center will be responsible for developing software systems for future architectures on a group-wide level and making them available to the entire company”, says Dr. Dirk Walliser. This will allow ZF to coordinate and standardize new trends, technologies, methods, procedures, tools, and functions in order to make the resulting software available to all ZF divisions on a common development platform.

“Our approach represents a fresh and different look at software: We do not aim to ‘centralize’ software development. The reason is simple: Where experienced teams have long been developing interlinked hardware and software at the component level, we will not reduce competencies. Instead, we provide complimentary support and run joint software integration projects to create ideal overall conditions. This allows the expert teams to focus on their work but still have access to the latest resources via the Global Software Center. On the other hand, pure software products – such as our middleware – can be created centrally in the Global Software Center and then made available to everyone for further use,” says Dr. Nico Hartmann.

In the medium term, this will lead to uniform structures and a uniform development environment throughout the ZF Group. The software will be developed or adapted much faster to meet the needs of future software-defined vehicles through integrated cooperation with customers and partners.

These simultaneous and interlinked hardware and software development processes at ZF provide innovative, integrated, and industry-leading solutions. They are not only unparalleled at the component level but can also be expanded to comprehensive and intelligent vehicle systems that create a unique user experience.


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Author: Jamie Irvine

Jamie Irvine is the host of The Heavy-Duty Parts Report and a consultant that works with manufacturers, distributors, and SaaS companies serving the heavy-duty truck parts industry.

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