Mercedes-Benz ESF concept
Mercedes-Benz ESF concept

Mercedes reveals world’s safest car

PICTURE the ESF 2019 as a shopping trolley - packed to overflowing. This one-off creation from Mercedes-Benz is filled with ideas for improving safety in future cars, not only for those inside the vehicle but also other road users.

"We are certainly not short of ideas for safety innovations," says Rodolfo Schoeneburg, the German brand's man in charge of vehicle safety for the past 20 years.

"And that is precisely one of the reasons for building the ESF 2019. We have done so to show the ideas and concepts our safety experts at Mercedes-Benz are currently researching and developing for further improvements in safety."

Photo of the Mercedes-Benz ESF concept
Photo of the Mercedes-Benz ESF concept

The initials "ESF" stand for the German words for Experimental Safety Vehicle. Revealed earlier this month in Stuttgart, hometown of Mercedes-Benz, this concept aims to show off hard-core engineering instead of soft-core style.

One glance at the ESF 2019 is all it takes to see it's based on the company's current model GLE. But the big SUV has been extensively altered, inside and out, as some of the brightest minds at Mercedes-Benz added their most innovative ideas.

The last time Mercedes-Benz did something like this was a decade ago. Using a big S-Class limo as its basis, the ESF 2009 previewed safety features that made it into production in the years that followed, plus some that didn't.

In the past 10 years the pace of change in car technology has accelerated. The big one now on the horizon is automated driving.

One of the main purposes of the ESF 2019 is to show Mercedes is well prepared for the impending arrival of cars with self-driving capability, part or full-time.

Some of the advances deal with questions that most ordinary drivers won't have even contemplated. For example: How can a car being driven by computers cooperatively communicate with other road users?

But the ESF 2019 also demonstrates plenty of ideas for ways to improve existing safety set-ups. Among these is an entirely new airbag design that increases safety for rear-seat passengers.

Other ESF 2019 innovations involve simply writing new software for on-board computers to add clever new functions. Now, let's check out the best stuff in Stuttgart's innovation shopping trolley …

Co-operative communication

The ESF vehicle can let other drivers know what mode it is operating in.
The ESF vehicle can let other drivers know what mode it is operating in.

Fully autonomous cars will be able to drive unoccupied. Even in the part-time self-driving cars that are nearer to arriving on the market, there's no guarantee the driver always will be paying attention to what's happening outside. The Mercedes solution is to make the car itself communicate. Screens built into the grille and rear window of the ESF 2019 can display colours, symbols, messages and animations. The four circular lights on top of the vehicle's four roof-mounted sensors glow turquoise to indicate operation in self-driving mode. After studies in 2018, Mercedes-Benz believes turquoise should be adopted globally as the colour of autonomy.

Virtual crumple zone

Using the multiple sensors required for automated driving, Mercedes engineers have found ways to use the time between detection of danger and impact, the best example being Pre-Safe Impulse Rear. If the stationary vehicle is about to be hit from behind, it automatically accelerates quickly into the available space ahead. This creates extra stopping space for the approaching car, at the same time as pressing passengers into their seats to reduce the chance of whiplash neck injuries. Time it right and the spurt of speed also reduces the severity of the impact. Expect to see this soon in new models.

Pre-safe side light

Those vivid stripes aren't only bright when it's light, they glow in the dark. The tech uses a multi-layer light-emitting paint. If the car's sensors detect another driver apparently failing to spot the ESF 2019, say at an unlit intersection at night, the stripes flash an unmissable look-at-me signal.

Holistic driver seat concept

Square-ish and small, the steering wheel of the ESF 2019 is the most obvious part of the new-look driving position Mercedes-Benz thinks is best for cars with self-driving capability. The device uses steer-by-wire tech and only needs to turns through 180 degrees. There's a better view of instruments when driving and it retracts into the dash when the vehicle is in autonomous mode, for extra space. The pedals retract into the floor at the same time, for the same reason. With a larger dash-mounted frontal airbag, side airbags mounted either side of the backrest and an inbuilt seat belt, there's all-round protection even if the driver has reclined the seat back to take a nap while the car drives itself.

Connected child seat

Photo of the Mercedes-Benz ESF concept
Photo of the Mercedes-Benz ESF concept

Designed for children up to 105cm tall and four years old, this idea is being developed in partnership with Britax Roemer. The battery-powered Wi-fi connection built into the seat communicates with the car's safety sensors. When danger is sensed, the seat cinches the five-point harness tighter to reduce injuries. An extra USB link adds diagnostic and warning functions that are displayed on the centre screen in the instrument panel. When stationary it shows a video image of the little occupant. When in motion, simple icons indicate the child's state - alert, asleep or restless.

Rear airbag

Photo of the Mercedes-Benz ESF concept
Photo of the Mercedes-Benz ESF concept

There are good reasons why a frontal airbag for rear seat passengers should not go off with the same big bang as those ahead. Gentle deployment means less risk for occupants who can vary widely in age, size and proximity to bag, mounted in the back of the facing seat. Mercedes-Benz has developed an entirely new kind of airbag that fits the bill for rear occupants. It uses a tubular frame inflated with compressed gas instead of an explosive pyrotechnic charge. The really clever part of the design is the space between the bars of the framework. The side walls instantly "inhale" and trap ambient air. Mercedes-Benz has patented this one-way breathing material.


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