Mercedes-Benz Blows Up a Car in the Name of Safety

Mercedes-Benz automobiles have always been coveted for their luxury, performance, and, increasingly, style. But safety has always been high on the company's list of priorities, and it is the excuse many a spouse has used to convince their significant other that the premium price for the car of their dreams is worth it. The automaker is a pioneer in technologies like energy-absorbing crumple zones and has also taken the innovations of others to new levels.

The German brand has now brought many of its ideas for future technologies into a single vehicle, the S400 Hybrid-based ESF Safety Concept, which is full of hot air… in a good way.

The front passenger seat airbag uses four internal straps to adjust its size depending on the seating position of the occupant, and it can vary the stiffness of the bag to better match the person's weight. Another inflatable device deploys vertically between the two front seats to help keep heads and extremities from flailing around the cabin and passengers from striking each other if the car rolls over or his hit from the side. Riders in the back get inflatable seatbelts that spread the force of impact to help soften the blow.

Even more next-gen are steel side-impact beams in the doors that are inflated by explosive charges like in an airbag, pressurizing and increasing their diameter to strengthen them just 30 milliseconds before an accident occurs. This allows Mercedes-Benz engineers either to lower the weight of the beams while maintaining their stiffness, or to increase strength without adding mass to the vehicle. In the case of the ESF, about 5 pounds were saved overall, which incrementally lowers the fuel consumption of the vehicle, as well.

But the show -- and car -- stopper is the ESF's braking bag. Just before a frontal impact, a rubber-coated steel frame is blown down from the bottom of the car between the front wheels. This causes the front end to hop, doubling the apparent weight - similar to quickly squatting down on a scale - and proportionately increasing the deceleration forces of the big Benz for split second, while counteracting the effects of nose dive to keep the bumper at the proper height when it inevitably hits the car in front of it.

"It's very important to get the right timing, because if you are too early it's no good and if it's too late it's no good," says ESF Project Manager, Michael Fehring.

To achieve this end for all of the vehicle's active safety systems, the ESF uses a 360-degree radar system and a powerful computer that monitors dozens of vehicle parameters before determining that an accident is unavoidable through driver interaction. The goal is to take advantage of the time left that human reflexes cannot.

"It is important for us that the driver always has the situation under control, Fehring says. "It's only working in the last 100 milliseconds, the braking bag. If you are 100 milliseconds in front of an accident, you can't do anything. If you steer or if you steer and brake, the crash will come."

The ESF also has an electronic version of ESP, utilizing a telematics systems that allows it to 'talk' to other cars on the road, communicating their positions and information like weather and road conditions, so the car knows what's coming, even before the driver or its onboard sensors get a look.

No word on exactly when or if we'll see any of these features in showrooms, but as pie-in-the-sky as much of this technology appears, it was only 30 years ago that Mercedes-Benz installed the first anti-lock brakes on a production car, with the now common traction control following about a decade later.

Soon, inflatable cars could be as common as pneumatic tires...but will probably be a little more expensive to fix when they get flattened.