The next breakthroughs in automotive safety will come in the realm of active safety features, most notably automatic emergency braking, vehicle-to-vehicle communication and using electronics to optimize the effectiveness of passive safety systems to limit occupant injuries. Ulrich Mellinghoff, vice president of development and engineering-safety, NVH and testing at Mercedes-Benz, says the industry has reached full optimization on the passive safety front, although the passive systems could be more compact, lightweight and reliable: He anticipates no revolutionary changes in passive systems. "We still have a lot of opportunity to help the driver and passengers prepare for a potential accident and avoid it. This is where a lot of activities in the field of safety will take place in the coming years," Mellinghoff says.
Mercedes has introduced a number of active safety features in recent years under its PRE-SAFE moniker. The 2007 CL-Class, for example, features a braking system that automatically applies partial braking during certain types of emergencies. Sensors included in the adaptive cruise control system are combined with brake system electronics so the brakes automatic-ally trigger up to 40% of total force to stop or slow the vehicle in the event of an impending collision. If the driver fails to apply full brake force manually, the system applies full brake pressure and activates other PRE-SAFE measures, including moving front seats into a better position for airbag deployment, closure of the side windows for added support for the window curtain airbags and inflation of side seat cushions for added occupant support. Mercedes also introduced its Intelligent Lighting System on E-Class models sold in Europe, which automatically adjusts light beam length and width depending on weather and driving conditions. The system's highway mode increases beam width and length when the vehicle travels over 55 mph, improving field of vision by as much as 164 ft.
Regulations, particularly in the U.S., have stymied some safety advancements. The Intelligent Lighting System, for instance, violates U.S. vehicle lighting standards and Mercedes had to get a "pass" from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to introduce rear brake light technology on the latest S-Class that emits warning flashes when a rear-end impact is imminent. NHTSA administrator Nicole Nason recently visited Mercedes headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany, to take part in demonstrations of current and future active safety systems and Mellinghoff was encouraged: "We think NHTSA is very open for discussions on these new technologies and I think they are on the same path as we are in terms of the future." A glimmer of promise appeared in January when the government announced proposed changes to the U.S. New Car Assessment Program calling for the inclusion of ratings for electronic stability control, adaptive cruise control and lane departure warning systems.
In addition to the regulators, Mellinghoff and his engineers have to work around the demands of Mercedes' design office, making sure all of the required safety systems are properly integrated into future vehicles, while assuring exterior designs meet the various safety requirements of global markets. He acknowledges there have been a few spats between the design and safety offices and expects there to be more challenges between designers and engineers when updated leg injury reduction standards are implemented. "Some interior designs will need knee airbags, but overall instrument panels will become heavier and thicker looking as a result," Mellinghoff says.
Mellinghoff's focus now is getting European regulators to follow their U.S. counterparts in adopting a single radio frequency to accommodate vehicle-to-vehicle communications, paving the way for improvements in traffic flow while further reducing collisions by providing advanced warnings of traffic slowdowns and changes in road or traffic conditions. Mercedes is testing a fleet of vehicles equipment with vehicle-to-vehicle communication technology and Mellinghoff predicts the system will be in production by 2009. "Optimization will require that other car manufacturers also offer this technology and we all need to work together on this front."
The first airbag was conceived by John Hetrick in 1952. It wasn't until Allen Breed invented crash sensing technology that airbags gained respect.