Is this the future of car safety?

Moving Well | Toby Hagon | Posted on 30 May 2019

Crash protection and talking cars are just some of Mercedes’ latest safety innovations.

Vehicle safety could soon include forward-facing airbags for the rear seats, smaller steering wheels with smarter airbags, and cars that talk to pedestrians. These are some of the visions of safety pioneer Mercedes-Benz, which has unveiled its latest experimental safety vehicle, the ESF 2019.

In some cases, the advanced safety tech uses existing systems or sensors, in others they require additional features, such as lidar (laser radar). Some of the features of the ESF will appear soon on production vehicles, while others are more about kickstarting a discussion on safety.

“The new ESF 2019 reflects the mobility of the future, and presents a wide variety of innovations which we are currently researching and developing. says Ola Kallenius, new CEO of parent company Daimler AG. “And I can already say this much: some of the functions are very close to series production.” 

White Mercedes-Benz stopped at pedestrian crossing while person crosses road

Mercedes-Benz latest car safety innovations 

Rear airbags

Airbag protection for rear-seat occupants is nothing new, but Mercedes-Benz has developed new airbags that protect the head and chest in a front-end crash.

Popping out from the back of the front seats, the rear airbags required an innovative new design, one that would not displace a rear-facing child seat. The result is a flexible airbag with an inflatable structure surrounded by material with thousands of tiny one-way valves that only allow inflation of the rest of the airbag if there is nothing in the way.

Rear crash protection

Rear-end crashes are some of the most common, with the vehicle at the back usually determining the scale of the impact. Mercedes wants to reduce that impact severity and, in some cases, eliminate it.

An extension of its ‘Pre-Safe’ crash preparation system, ‘Impulse Rear’ monitors approaching traffic using a rear-facing radar. It can then autonomously accelerate the car to fill the small gap to the car in front, potentially avoiding a crash.

If an impact is inevitable, the car would aim to build enough speed in a short distance to minimise the speed differential between the two cars, thereby lowering the crash energy.

Mercedes Benz safety vehicle showing innovative safety lighting technology

The ESF 2019 uses light signals to communicate its intentions.

Mercedes safety vehicle prototype showing innovative rear crash assist

A roof warning triangle can warn even if the automated vehicle is on the road without a driver.

External communication

Various concept cars have flagged the ability for cars to communicate with pedestrians and cyclists via a display screen able to acknowledge the vulnerable road user and invite them to cross the road, safe in the knowledge the car has spotted them. It’s particularly important for the imminent arrival of autonomous vehicles, addressing the potential confusion caused by lack of eye contact with the driver.

But Mercedes wants to take it to the next level, using sensors and cameras to monitor what’s going on around the car when it’s parked. If a pedestrian has their head buried in their phone wandering between parked cars, for example, the smart car could alert them to approaching traffic with visible and audible warnings.

Connected child seat

RACV child-restraint fitting checks have found that about 70 per cent of child seats are incorrectly fitted. Mercedes-Benz believes it has a solution, with a connected child seat that can be reversed to accommodate children of different ages.

The seat has an in-built camera that allows real-time monitoring of the child, presenting a smiling or sleeping icon on the driver’s infotainment screen. The seat is also connected to the car’s ‘Pre-Safe’ system via wifi, enabling it to pre-tension belts before an anticipated crash and deploy side bolsters to maintain more space at the side of the car. It will also warn of incorrectly fitted belts. The prototype restraint uses an ISOFIX connector with a foot to stop the seat rotating forward in a crash.

Mercedes safety vehicle interior shot showing driver seat and small steering wheel

The new steering wheel offers more leg room and can be retracted. 

Interior shot of Mercedes safety vehicle prototype that shows digital seatbelt display

The connected child safety seat with PRE-SAFE® functions.

Small steering wheel

Car makers have for years been working on steer-by-wire systems, which replace a mechanical steering link with an electrical connection.

Mercedes-Benz says such systems will allow the fitting of smaller, rectangular steering wheels with variable ratios that ensure they never need to be turned beyond half way. That, in turn, allows an airbag to be fitted in the dashboard rather than the wheel itself, and the airbag could be bigger and shaped to better protect the driver.

Auto braking when parking

Car companies including Mazda, Nissan, Jeep and Mercedes-Benz already have systems that spot obstacles and can automatically brake the car in reverse. But Mercedes is looking to improve that with 360-degree coverage, using the side cameras and other sensors to spot and brake for obstacles.

Daylight cabin

Just as in a room with small windows, the roof, doors and pillars of a car mean only 10 to 20 per cent of outside light reaches the eyes of the driver. Mercedes-Benz conducted studies that found the lack of natural light during daytime hours negatively affected concentration and attentiveness.

The result is a ‘vitalising’ interior light under the sun visor to mimic what is coming from the outside but with a higher intensity. The wavelength of the light is said to be ‘biologically effective’ with a blue-ish colour temperature, providing light close to that of sunlight during daylight hours, helping the driver stay more alert.