Amazing 24/7 assistants
© iStock
September 2021

Amazing 24/7 assistants

By Björn Carstens
A fleet of autonomous service vehicles has embarked on a journey of revolutionizing the workplace and everyday life. That’s a huge step in the direction of greater efficiency because these automatic assistants can work around the clock. Read on to learn more.

Autonomous driving is a concept that causes the imagination of car manufacturers and consumers alike to run wild. Finally, it will be possible to use the time spent in an automobile in meaningful ways: for working, reading, surfing the internet or sleeping instead of staring at the road and the cars in front for miles on end. However, the problem is that here we’re talking about automation Levels 4 (car is in control, driver can fully focus on other tasks) or 5 (no steering wheel and pedals in the car anymore). At the moment, we’re in the transition stage from Level 2 to 3: cars can operate autonomously in defined situations (e. g. using traffic jam assist) but the person at the wheel must be able to intervene at all times. Although more automation is already possible in terms of technology, there are other questions to be clarified such as liability in case of a crash. Consequently, it will be a while before computers take full control of cars. Level 4 may be achievable starting in 2025, according to expert estimates, and Level 5 not before 2030. In other areas, a mass rollout of the technology will be achievable sooner. Tobias Wessels, for instance, is convinced that this will be the case because “In delivery trucks for the last mile the technology currently makes more sense than in passenger cars,” says the CCO of U.S. startup Udelv that’s planning to launch up to 35,000 self-driving delivery vehicles by 2028. Why does Wessels see things this way?

Load carrier

This cobot from a French startup company is a smart automatic carrying aid (up to 500 kg/1,100 lbs). When someone taps its touchscreen, EffiBOT will automatically follow them through the factory like here at the SEAT plant in Martorell, Spain. Thanks to its sensors permanently scanning the environment for 360-degree readings it doesn’t need any further assistance even if people or objects cross its path.

Machines are immune to distraction

The world is in delivery mode. During the coronavirus lockdown it seemed like there were more delivery heroes with their parcel vans, pizza cars or messenger bikes in the streets than pedestrians. All of these vehicles are still operated by humans but, provided that reliable people can be found in the first place, they cost a lot of money, need to take breaks, and occasionally are unavailable due to leave or illness.


This device made by a Finnish company looks a little like an oversized robotic vacuum cleaner. And in a way that’s what it is. As an electric street sweeper, this 3.50-meter-long (11.5-ft) and 2.30-meter (7.5-ft) wide XXL version drives fully automatically through Helsinki’s streets at night at a maximum speed of 10 km/h (6 mph). In addition to several cameras whose pictures are analyzed by means of AI image recognition technology, the street sweeper uses LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) to achieve precise object recognition and flawless contact avoidance.

Autonomous service vehicles on the other hand do not get tired or sick, are immune to distractions, recognize hazardous situations earlier thanks to their connectivity, and are simply safer. “Autonomous service vehicles of all kinds can be used 24/7 and therefore very efficiently,” emphasizes Klaus Graf, member of the management board at ­Schaeffler’s subsidiary Paravan, that in the form of Space Drive drive-by-wire technology supplies a redundant electronics interface for controlling the steering wheel, accelerator and brake as an important basic component for achieving autonomous mobility.


The SeaClear project currently being tested at the Hamburg port is focused on getting rid of macroplastics at the bottom of the sea. The mission of a “team” of uncrewed underwater robots, a ship, and a drone is to localize the waste, classify it as such and to finally collect it using a combination of suction and gripping devices. Once initiated, this process is supposed to be run fully automatically. Unfortunately, there’s plenty of disposal work to do. An estimated 26 to 66 million metric tons (29 to 73 short tons) of waste are polluting the oceans, more than 80 percent of it on the seafloor.

Amazing 24/7 assistants© Sea Clear

The highly sophisticated systems of a robo-car react faster than a human ever could – in 0.1 instead of 1.4 seconds, according to relevant calculations. Around 90 percent of traffic accidents are attributable to driver mistakes, according to the consulting firm McKinsey. They could be reduced by automated vehicles.

Refueling drone

For the first time, the U.S. Navy has managed to use a drone for in-flight refueling of a fighter jet. Just six meters (20 ft) of hose separated the drone from the jet. In future missions, Boeing’s MQ-25 Stingray is said to be able to carry up to 8,525 liters (2,252 gallons) of fuel for in-flight refueling of several jet aircraft. The drone, though, can be used not only for refueling aircraft but also for reconnaissance and surveillance purposes.

Amazing 24/7 assistants© US Navy
Closed-off areas as ideal training grounds

The fact that unlike human passengers, parcels have no concerns about the absence of a human driver at the wheel is another advantage of self-driving delivery vehicles, which makes them superbly suited for accelerating developments in the area of autonomous driving and finding new solutions especially in the important setting of urban mobility. Factories have been regarded as perfect test beds for years: separate areas with reduced speed, the same recurring routes, and hardly any other traffic are an ideal environment for learning autonomous driving – just like electric trolleys, forklift trucks and other fully automated robots have been doing for years: driverless and fully autonomously, they detect obstacles and crossing workers by sensor systems using 3D cameras, lidar, ultrasound and laser sensors as well as radar eyes. Klaus Graf: “I think that in other predefined areas autonomous vehicles can become an integral component of everyday mobility relatively soon as well.” Kiosk robots on wheels, for instance on campuses, pharmacy cabinets on wheels in low-traffic neighborhoods, or autonomous street cleaners washing the streets at night. Uses are emerging in areas other than streets and roads as well: in the form of self-diving underwater cleaning robots in port facilities, drones that fly banked blood back and forth in cases of emergency, or autonomous ferries shuttling passengers – many things are possible and some are already being tested (see examples).

Smart deliveries
  • Field testing of self-driving technology. In the UK, automaker Ford and delivery ...
    Field testing of self-driving technology. In the UK, automaker Ford and delivery service Hermes are investigating how other road users behave when encountering a seemingly driverless van that’s equipped with all the typical sensors of a fully autonomous vehicle. The idea behind it is that the driver in the field has a range of tasks such as sorting, loading and handing out parcels besides operating the vehicle. In this test, the “invisible” driver remained totally passive. Couriers called the delivery vehicle via an app, and voice messages and monitors guided them to the parcel box intended for them. © Ford
  • Smart, self-driving high-tech robots delivering supermarket or fast-food orders ...
    Smart, self-driving high-tech robots delivering supermarket or fast-food orders – testing of the automated future of door-to-door delivery services has been underway for years. Robot manufacturer Nuro in the U.S. has deployed the R2. Equipped with lidar, radar and cameras, it navigates its way around the maze of city streets at up to 40 km/h (25 mph). After entering a code, customers just take their shopping out of a refrigerated compartment. © Nuro
  • Peanut, the robotic waiter, may not be of huge help in serving meals to patrons ...
    Peanut, the robotic waiter, may not be of huge help in serving meals to patrons but clearly shows which way things in the restaurant business may be headed, considering the severe shortage of labor there. Using lidar technology, the robo-waiter autonomously takes tableware from place A to place B. However, it’s unable to autonomously set tables nor truly work together with people. Albeit, what’s already possible in industrial settings should soon work in restaurants too. © Richtech Robotics
  • A vending machine arriving at your doorstep. Network operator Vodafone and food ...

    A vending machine arriving at your doorstep. Network operator Vodafone and food retailer Rewe are currently testing a self-driving project vehicle that delivers snacks and beverages. The snack-mobile continuously travels in a loop across a commercial campus in Cologne at 6 km/h (3.7 mph). All it takes to cause the vehicle to stop is to briefly beckon it. Roof-mounted cameras and sensors recognize the hand signals. That’s truly a foretaste of connected road traffic of the future. © Vodafone
Space Drive as a key technology

“All of these autonomous vehicles on water, in the air or on the road will require redundant brake-by-wire and steer-by-wire systems such as our Space Drive. That’s why we regard it as a key technology for future mobility,” says Klaus Graf.

Road-approved people mover

Hanseatische Fahrzeugmanufaktur has deployed Busbee, an autonomous electric bus currently operating on a test route in the North German lowlands, albeit with a driver. The bus is controlled with a joystick using drive-by-wire technology from Schaeffler’s subsidiary Paravan. Busbee is the only road-approved people mover, which means that in manual mode it can also operate off the test routes.

Amazing 24/7 assistants© Schaeffler Paravan

Graf knows how the development can be further accelerated: “Vehicle control and the interaction of systems must be imagined beyond the current state.” Fast and secure data communication using the 5G network plays a crucial role in this context because, ultimately, a drive-by-wire system only executes control commands, and the more data the creation of such commands can be based on the safer autonomous driving becomes.

In a predefined area, autonomous service vehicles will be gaining ground relatively soon

Klaus Graf,
member of the management board, Schaeffler Paravan

The vehicles need to learn how to communicate and have to absorb information in a dialog with other vehicles (car2car communication), non-motorized road users, the traffic infrastructure, or with other information sources such as radio traffic service and weather forecasts (car2x communication). And why shouldn’t a school warn approaching traffic of an impending break and the resulting higher risk of children potentially running into the street. So, the connected vehicle literally peeks around the corner and even through walls. It recognizes hazards early and in doing so becomes an early warning system for the traffic behind it. All in all, these are good prerequisites for assuring us that not only our goods are in safe hands in a self-driving vehicle but that we will soon be too – relaxing and leaning back in our seat and making sensible use of our time on the road.

Amazing 24/7 assistants
With the production-level Rolling Chassis, Schaeffler presents a modular platform for the city of the future with universal usability for hauling passengers and goods© Schaeffler
The pathway to autonomous mobility

With Space Drive 3 Add-ON, Schaeffler is ­presenting the next generation of the steer-by-wire system, the key technology for ­autonomous driving with multiple redundancy. For ­Schaeffler, this step marks the company’s entry into low-volume production.

In Generation 3, the system based on the automotive open system architecture (AUTOSAR) standard allows a direct connection to the vehicle electronics as well as communication and network architectures, which enables integration into existing advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS). “Space Drive 3 marks a major milestone for us,” says Viktor Molnar, President of the Chassis Business Division at Schaeffler.

“With it, we’re able to offer our customers a production-level steer-by-wire system with maximum scalability and flexibility. In addition, all steering parameters can be recorded, which enables feedback communication to ADAS in vehicles operating in automated driving modes,” says Molnar.

Moreover, by presenting the Rolling Chassis at IAA Mobility 2021, Schaeffler demonstrates what innovative drive and chassis technologies might look like going forward – as flexible, scalable platforms for new, driverless mobility solutions for hauling passengers or goods or for specialty applications such as street cleaners.

The modular platform shows the wide variety of technologies from Schaeffler and offers a flexible architecture: for the steering and drive systems, diverse versions can be implemented, depending on customer requirements – from simple drives via an e-axle and a central steering unit to the utilization of four Schaeffler Corner Modules. The Corner Modules, each enabling a steering angle of up to 90 degrees, have been further developed toward production level and scalability. They encompass the wheel hub motor, the wheel suspension including air springs enabling the vehicle to be lowered for ingress, the actuator for the electromechanical steering system, and a brake.

© Schaeffler