IF A scientist or a doctor discovered a cure for cancer and saved more than a million lives, he or she would be a household name.

So why don't we know the man who invented the biggest road safety advancement since the seat belt?

Experts estimate electronic stability control - dubbed ESP, the "brain" that can prevent a car from skidding off a road, which we all take for granted today - has prevented more than a million fatalities since the 1990s.

In the automotive industry, car brands own the rights to the inventions of their thousands of engineers. Which is why you haven't heard of Frank Werner-Mohn - until now.

 

Safety engineer Frank Werner-Mohn, who invented electronic stability control, may have saved your life without you even knowing it. Picture: Daniel Maurer.
Safety engineer Frank Werner-Mohn, who invented electronic stability control, may have saved your life without you even knowing it. Picture: Daniel Maurer.

Sitting in a ditch after skidding off an icy road in the far north of Sweden in February 1989, the young engineer on a test trip for Mercedes-Benz had plenty of time to contemplate what just happened.

The nearest town, Stromsund, was too far to reach on foot without freezing to death and mobile phones were still an emerging technology.

Eventually the local tow truck arrived to extract his car undamaged, although the Mercedes man's ego was a little bruised.

Through no fault of his own the car left the icy pavement on a straight road, nosing into the snow bank, narrowly missing large trees.

As he pondered how this could happen, he had a brainwave. What if the recent innovation known as anti-lock braking - which rapidly pulses brake pressure to prevent wheels locking up - could somehow "talk" to an onboard computer that measured a car's sideways movement in milliseconds?

The Mercedes driven by safety engineer Frank Werner-Mohn, retrieved from a ditch near Stromsund Sweden in February 1989. Picture: Frank Werner Mohn.Source:Supplied
The Mercedes driven by safety engineer Frank Werner-Mohn, retrieved from a ditch near Stromsund Sweden in February 1989. Picture: Frank Werner Mohn.Source:Supplied

Back at Mercedes headquarters in Stuttgart, Werner-Mohn's team was given permission to build a prototype to put theory into practice.

The engineers went to a toy shop and bought a remote control helicopter - to pull apart for its gyro sensor.

The prototype worked but the engineers quickly discovered the gyro sensor needed faster processing speeds. So they checked for the best source and got one from a Scud missile, minus the warhead of course.

Then came two years of intensive development by a small but dedicated team whose idea was originally mocked by some colleagues.

In March 1991, the technology was given the go-ahead for production after a top Mercedes executive, who was known to be timid behind the wheel, lapped an icy obstacle course in an ESP-equipped prototype - and was almost as fast as the professional test drivers.

"Once they saw this ... the board approved it at once," says Werner-Mohn. "This was a revelation."

Originally the technology was installed in the S-Class limousine in 1995. Then in 1997 a Swedish technical magazine flipped the new Mercedes A-Class in a swerve and avoid "moose test".

Mercedes responded by fitting its new stability control technology - previously reserved for its dearest model - to its cheapest car. Fitment to the entire range followed.

There were mixed emotions for the inventor when, soon after, Mercedes gave the patents to its technology suppliers - and charged them not one cent.

Mercedes gave its know-how to the tech companies - and allowed them to sell it to rival car brands - to reduce the cost of the technology. This decision would end up saving countless lives.

According to the latest estimates from European safety bodies, the number of lives saved due to stability control exceeds one million globally and the technology is now compulsory in most developed countries, including Australia.


SENTIMENTAL JOURNEY SOUTH OF STROMSUND

We journey to Sweden to find the location that changed the course of car safety. We start from an ice lake near Arjeplog, a tiny village near the Arctic Circle whose population swells in winter as car companies conduct cold weather testing.

It's another 300km to Stromsund, a six-hour grind thanks to convoys of trucks and snow ploughs on the narrow icy roads.

We make it but can't find the historic spot as the terrain either side of town is covered in ice and snow.

Then there's divine intervention - we find the tow company that pulled Werner-Mohn from the ditch and the new owners know how to find Tommy Bjurstrom, who as a lad went with his dad that day to retrieve some fancy new Mercedes.

We show the former towie photos of the crashed car and a young Tommy with his father and the tow truck. His eyes light up and he beckons us to follow.

We head about 4km south to a nondescript stretch of straight road. There is still a ditch but with the trees cleared from the edge.

The men get out and hug. Werner-Mohn can't believe Tommy has found the spot. The towie can't believe what the fuss is all about - until we explain what that crash led to and how many lives the technology has saved since.

Werner-Mohn reflects on the events: "In my heart I was wounded because it was my invention and it was given away.

"But of course I now see the best decision was … to make it available to everyone, to spread it out to all cars."

News Corp Australia

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