New technology increases road safety

The enhanced computing power of modern vehicles means driving tasks will increasingly be automated.

With the convergence of electric powertrains and remarkable leaps in computing power, data generation and storage, the car as we know it is set to undergo some of the most fundamental changes in its history. 

Driven by climate change, advanced technology and a rising interest in sustainability, it’s becoming increasingly obvious that we're on the cusp of what American management consulting firm McKinsey & Company describe as mobility’s “second great inflection point”. 

While much of the focus today is on the shift from internal combustion to electrified powertrains, vehicle safety is also poised to make major advances during this period, thanks to the enhanced computing power of modern vehicles.  

One of the most significant safety changes will be move towards autonomous vehicles. 

While the idea of cars that drive themselves understandably concerns people, the fact is there are already tens of thousands of cars on our roads today that can operate with a degree of autonomy. 

If your late-model vehicle has features like autonomous emergency braking (AEB) or adaptive cruise control (ACC), then you’re already driving a semi-autonomous vehicle.

Mercedes-Benz Experimental Safety Vehicle, ESF 2019.

While it’s tempting to believe that such advanced technologies might only be available on top-end luxury vehicles, the fact is they are increasingly available in affordable, mainstream models. 

The current generation Toyota Yaris, for instance, is priced from about $23,000 and features an Advanced Driver Assistance System (ADAS) as standard on every model. 

This includes a pre-collision safety system with autonomous emergency braking, active cruise control, automatic high beam and technologies to assist with cornering, staying in the intended lane and detecting speed signs. 

As impressive as these technologies are, they are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of where automotive safety and autonomous driving are headed. 

German car maker Mercedes-Benz believes autonomous motoring is one of four megatrends which will shape the future of the automobile, with the others being connectivity, shared services and electric.

These four megatrends are expressed in the CASE acronym which forms a key part of the company’s strategic direction.  

Mercedes-Benz Experimental Safety Vehicle, ESF 2019.

Megatrends are defined as sustained macro-economic forces happening at a global scale and Mercedes-Benz is among the car makers who believe that the convergence of electric vehicle powertrains and autonomous driving technology will change the car as we know it in unprecedented ways.

The automotive industry categorises autonomous driving according to five SAE levels. 

In Level 1 or assisted driving, the driver always has full control of the vehicle, but can use driving assistance systems, such as adaptive cruise control.

In Level 2, or semi-automated driving, the driver always has full control of the vehicle, but can call on support from driving assistance systems for longitudinal and lateral guidance or when parking. 

In Level 3, conditionally automated driving, the driving system can take over dynamic driving tasks when certain parameters apply, but the driver must be ready to take control at any time. 

In Level 4, or highly automated driving, under certain circumstances such as on selected roads and in fine weather, the vehicle can manage all traffic situations by itself. 

Road safety logo

Finally, at the driverless Level 5, the vehicle can perform all driving functions by itself in all circumstances.

While Levels 4 and 5 autonomous driving might appear straight out of a science fiction movie, the fact is that as far back as 2013, Mercedes-Benz demonstrated it is technically possible.

At that time, a previous generation Mercedes-Benz S-Class equipped with near-production technology covered a 100km route in Germany completely autonomously.

The event was a precursor to the subsequent release of the company’s Drive Pilot, conditionally automated driving technology, which debuts on the new S-Class in Germany this year. 

A statement from Mercedes-Benz released at the launch of the new generation W223 S-Class earlier this year said: “It is expected that from the second half of 2021 the S-Class will be able to drive in conditionally automated mode with the new Drive Pilot, in situations where traffic density is high or in tailbacks, on suitable motorway sections in Germany. 

“With the appropriate pre-installation for the Intelligent Parking Pilot, the S-Class is (also) ready for driverless highly automated parking (Automated Valet Parking; Level 4).” 

Mercedes-Benz Experimental Safety Vehicle, ESF 2019.

While neither of these features are enabled in Australian-spec S-Class models, due to differing regulations here, the fact is that Mercedes-Benz has taken the crucial step towards conditionally and highly automated driving (SAE Level 3 and Level 4), offering its customers the possibility of handing over the task of driving to the vehicle for the first time.

“Five years ago, many OEMs were bragging about the fact that by 2020 they’d have a fully autonomous, certified car in the market,” Andre Dutkowski, Senior Manager of Product Marketing, Strategy and CASE Implementation at Mercedes-Benz Australia, said. 

“But it simply took all of us a bit longer to really make this technology bulletproof and safe.

“I guess it’s fair to say that it took the industry a bit longer to get from 98 percent to 100 percent than we all thought it would.

“But obviously when it comes to safety, we cannot compromise anything, or make short cuts, and we need to get the technology right.

“But it will be coming and when we talk about motoring in 25 years’ time, we will be driving autonomous vehicles."

Mercedes-Benz Experimental Safety Vehicle, ESF 2019.

One model that showcases these and other new safety technologies to impressive effect is the Mercedes-Benz Experimental Safety Vehicle, ESF 2019. 

Based on a then current generation GLE SUV, the ESF 2019 was first revealed in May 2019, featuring a plug-in hybrid-electric drivetrain and Level 4 autonomous driving capability. 

This means the vehicle can drive itself without human interaction, although a human still has the option to manually override it. 

As the latest in a line of Mercedes-Benz safety concept vehicles dating back to 1971, ESF 2019 is designed to allow the brand’s safety experts to test new and experimental safety technologies.

While many of its new features are still not available in production vehicles, ESF 2019 provides a pointer to safety features that could soon become mainstream. In fact, some features like its rear seat airbags appear on the new S-Class, which launched here earlier this year. 

Among the ESF 2019’s other safety innovations are a steering wheel and pedal cluster that automatically retract when autonomous driving mode is enabled; sensors that can detect an impending rear-end collision and accelerate the car to take evasive action; a warning triangle that deploys by a robot in the event of an accident; and the ability for the vehicle to communicate with other road users via special lighting effects and electronic messaging.  

Mercedes-Benz Experimental Safety Vehicle, ESF 2019.

In addition, Mercedes-Benz says the greater interior flexibility enabled by autonomous vehicles requires new ideas for restraint systems, such as the ESF 2019’s seat-integrated belt and airbags with alternative installation spaces, such as the driver airbag in the dashboard and integral side bag in the side bolsters of the seat backrests.

Other new safety features of the ESF 2019 include the now productionised rear-seat airbag, which uses a special new inflation concept to deploy and position the airbag. 

In addition, the vehicle’s rear seats feature belt-feeders, belt buckle illumination, USB belt buckles and belt heating, as ways to encourage passengers to buckle up. 

Another ESF 2019 safety innovation is the extension of the brand’s Pre-Safe technology to a special child seat in which the seat belt is preventively tensioned and side-mounted impact protection elements are extended before a crash. 

Thanks to the tensioned belt, the child is more firmly and accurately fixed in the seat while belt slack is reduced. 

Monitoring of seat installation and the child's vital signs are other functions integrated into the seat.

Mercedes-Benz Experimental Safety Vehicle, ESF 2019.

But perhaps most intriguing teaser to future automobile technologies is the ESF 2019’s cooperative communication system which enables it to communicate with other drivers, pedestrians and cyclists.

The German car maker believes that for people to gain trust in automated vehicles they must be able to easily recognise what it intends to do.

Hence why the ESF 2019 uses sensors to not only keep an eye on traffic but to communicate in all directions and warn other road users where necessary. 

Using animation projected onto its grille and rear screen, ESF 2019 can convey information on road and traffic hazards to other road user, while the lights on its roof can signify danger to other motorists or acknowledge that it has seen pedestrians when in autonomous mode.

The ESF 2019 also features new ideas for how the scenes of an accident or breakdown can be secured more safely with innovations like a small robot that automatically emerges from the vehicle's rear following an incident and positions itself at the roadside as a warning triangle. 

A warning triangle also folds out of the vehicle’s roof and the rear windscreen becomes a live communication surface.

While it’s tempting to see ESF 2019 and its technologies as little more than concept car marketing exercise, the fact is that numerous innovations from previous experimental safety models have made it into production. 

This includes the ESF 2009’s belt bag which is available for the S-Class and its Active High Beam Assist Plus which is available for many model series.