Safety isn't really a sexy thing. But it's something we take for granted, despite the fact safety features have led to a progressive reduction in road fatalities over previous decades (although, some think it has more to do with speed cameras).
The engineers at Mercedes-Benz have a huge part to play in the innovation and invention of safety technology. Through a set of concept vehicles released to the public, in conjunction with the Enhanced Safety of Vehicles (ESV for short) conventions that first kicked off in 1970, Mercedes has moved some of these safety features into production.
In preparation for the 2019 ESV conference, Mercedes-Benz has taken the wraps off its latest concept car based on the 2019 Mercedes-Benz GLE plug-in hybrid, which takes safety to the next level with recognition of the autonomous future we are moving to.
We had the chance to get up close and personal with the ESF 2019 concept vehicle at Mercedes-Benz's incredible Technology Centre for Vehicle Safety at the brand's Sindelfingen test facility in Germany.
ESV – a brief history
The safety conference first kicked off in 1970 and was established under the NATO Committee on the Challenges of Modern Society. It was originally established with the agreement of US, French, German, Italian, British, Japanese and Swedish governments, aiming to develop experimental safety vehicles and safety concepts to further push the safety offering for cars on the road.
This committee then evolved to include the governments of Canada, Australia, the Netherlands, Hungary, Poland, South Korea and both the European Commission and the European Enhanced Vehicle-Safety Committee.
Since then, car companies have worked to develop safety concepts to not only show off their skills within the ESV conferences, which occur every two years, but also use these concepts to develop new technology for their production cars.
Mercedes-Benz has a rich history of Experimental Safety Vehicles (ESFs), with 30 vehicles developed between 1971 and 1975 to showcase the brand's excellence in the safety field.
We had the chance to have a closer look at three historic Mercedes-Benz ESFs with the ESF 13, ESF 22a and the ESF 2009. They're strange-looking cars because the crazy requirements set by the ESV meant regular cars just wouldn't cut it.
The 1972 ESF 13, for example, had to withstand a frontal and rear impact of 80km/h and a side impact of 25km/h. These elements alone added a whopping 705kg to the weight of the vehicle, it increased the length by over half a metre, and featured soft padding throughout the cabin to prevent passenger impact with components of the car.
The requirements were so arduous that even opening the doors was an effort-inducing task due to their weight. A quick look inside the cabin also found the effortless seatbelt requirement, which meant the driver wouldn't interact with the belt at all when getting into the car.
It was thought at the time any incentive to help people apply seatbelts would be a winner. This solution mounted the seatbelt to the seat frame (which in turn required extra structural support within the seat), and meant the driver could simply slide into the seat and the belt would be self-applying.
You also found ABS brakes, headlamp wipers, rear window wipers, and even a change to the pedals to create softer, rounded edges.
Step forward to the 1973-era ESF 22a and the ESV committee realised an 80km/h crash requirement wasn't going to work. As a result, the requirement for a frontal and rear impact was lowered to 65km/h.
This meant the additional weight required dropped to just an extra 287kg and extra length to just 280mm more. Beneath the front of the vehicle were hydraulic impact absorbers with 245mm of length to take the force of an impact at the front.
Also included were ABS brakes, seatbelts with a force limiter and belt tensioner, while the driver's seat did away with an airbag instead of a belt tensioner.
While there was another ESF vehicle released to the public in 1974, Mercedes-Benz stayed quiet on the release of public prototypes until the ESF 2009 was rolled out.
Between the last public prototype, the ESF 24, and the ESF 2009, Mercedes-Benz rolled out ABS brakes in 1979, the driver airbag in 1980, and side airbags in 1995, generally from the S-Class down.
ESF 2009 debuted a number of prototype features that included the inflatable seatbelt, the braking bag (an underbody inflatable device that works to dig into the ground and slow the vehicle), Child Protect (a metal frame that surrounds a baby seat), the hybrid battery shield (a device to protect a vehicle's lithium and battery systems), Pre-Safe 360, Pre-Safe Pulse, Pre-Safe Structure, a rear seat camera, side reflect, size adaptive airbags, multibeam LED headlights and interseat protection.
Most of these features eventually made their way into production vehicles following the reveal of ESF 2009, and shaped the future for Mercedes-Benz's investment in safety.
Based on the 2019 Mercedes-Benz GLE plug-in hybrid equipped with Level 4 autonomy features (hands off, eyes off), the ESF 2019 concept safety vehicle debuts a number of new prototype safety features that are expected to make their way into future production vehicles.
The most obvious thing you'll notice about the exterior is the litany of lights and exterior display elements, which are designed primarily for the purpose of helping other road users understand what the car is doing from an autonomy perspective.
The front, for example, features an LED screen that displays a number of emotions and signals so road users ahead of the vehicle can understand its intentions or next movement. This could apply to pedestrians crossing the road or vehicles approaching.
For example, a person crossing the road while an autonomous vehicle is in autonomous mode, may not have the visual cue from the driver that they are slowing down. By lighting up the front of the vehicle, the pedestrian knows with confidence that the GLE will slow down to allow them to cross.
Further to this, Mercedes-Benz engineers have employed electro-sensitive paint on the sides of the vehicle that can light up with an electrical impulse. This allows the vehicle to warn other road users, such as cyclists or pedestrians who are about to walk across the front of the car into oncoming traffic. The system can then flash headlights and make a warning sound to prevent a potential car and pedestrian impact.
This concept is taken further on the rear window and roof of the GLE. The entire rear window is an opaque LED screen that can display warning messages and even display an image of what is happening in front of the car.
Again, this concept is used for vehicles following the autonomous GLE to understand why it's slowing down and what is happening in front of it.
The final exterior concept that works a charm is a warning triangle that climbs from the roof, and is joined by an autonomous robot that can be dropped from the rear of the vehicle and be driven up the road to warn oncoming road users of a hazard ahead. Seriously cool stuff.
Inside the cabin, Mercedes-Benz has replaced the conventional steering wheel with a futuristic version that's capable of tucking away when the vehicle is in autonomous mode. It's joined by retractable pedals that disappear when the driver is done with the task of manual driving.
If you have precious cargo in the form of a little one in a baby seat, the Pre-Safe Child feature delivers both safety and functionality. Made from carbon fibre, the car seat swivels into position and features an array of lights on an adjacent display that alerts the fitter to whether the seat is fitted correctly.
Using a raft of sensors, the lights will tell the user which part of the seat-fitting process hasn't been done correctly. It's then able to connect into the seatbelt's USB-C port to provide heart-rate monitoring and a live video feed to the driver's infotainment screen.
This would be a particularly handy feature if the baby seat is rearward facing. It would mean checking up on the child would take place with a single push of a button, as opposed to looking over or using a system of mirrors when the car is stationary.
The final safety element of the seat is a rod that fires from the side of the seat and pushes against the passenger door. This is designed to create a moment of acceleration ahead of an impact to reduce the severity of the impact for the child. Most cleverly, the rod is charged each time the seat is swiveled into position.
Out on the road, ESF 2019 employs two innovative Pre-Safe features – Pre-Safe Impulse Rear and Pre-Safe Curve. Pre-Safe Curve aims to pull at the driver and front passenger's seatbelts if the vehicle's approach speed to a corner is too quick. It uses satellite map data and vehicle speed to give the driver a gentle warning that they need to prepare for the turn coming up.
It's not a bad idea – especially if you're driving on an unfamiliar road and miss a road speed advisory sign. It's a little disconcerting when you feel it for the first time, but it's a clever idea nevertheless.
Pre-Safe Impulse Rear, on the other hand, is an incredible innovation that aims to eliminate or reduce the severity of rear impacts. Using sensors at the rear of the vehicle, the ESF 2019 will stop short of the vehicle in front and in the event the vehicle behind is going to impact the rear of the car, the ESF 2019 can accelerate forward quickly and then brake again.
This function reduces the gap between your vehicle and the vehicle in front, but also increases the stopping room for the vehicle that's about to impact you. If the vehicle behind you simply won't stop in time, it creates a momentary acceleration that reduces the difference in speed between the two vehicles, which as a result reduces impact severity.
Mercedes-Benz has proven again with the ESF 2019 that it's committed to bringing the latest and best safety features to the market. The site we toured at Mercedes-Benz's Sindelfingen facility shows how much effort the brand is putting into safety and innovation. In addition to seeing the ESF 2019 and historic concepts, Mercedes-Benz engineers walked us through their future innovations including light balance for interiors, next-generation airbags and even seatbelt heaters – an innovation to compel users to wear their seatbelts.
ESF 2019 will be shown at the 2019 ESV conference, which will be held in the Netherlands. It will also be on display at the 2019 Frankfurt motor show. We are big fans of companies displaying leadership and giving us a sneak peek behind the curtain of their top secret facilities.
These technologies go a long way to reduce fatalities on the road, and will progressively make their way down from expensive vehicles through to consumer models as the economies of scale kick in. There's no better time to be buying a new car if safety is a top priority.
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