Interview Prof. Dr.-Ing. Rodolfo Schöneburg: "Safety continues to be our core brand value"

Sep 9, 2019

Prof. Dr.-Ing. Rodolfo Schöneburg was born on 30 October 1959, studied aerospace engineering and obtained his doctorate at the Technical University of Berlin. He holds an honorary professorship at the College of Technology and Business Economics (HTW) in Dresden. He has been Head of Vehicle Safety, Durability and Corrosion Protection at Mercedes-Benz since April 1999. It was in 2002, under his aegis, that the preventive occupant protection system PRE-SAFE® entered series production as the start of a new era in vehicle safety at Mercedes-Benz. In the interview, Prof. Schöneburg comments on the Experimental Safety Vehicle ESF 2019.

Professor Schöneburg, ten years ago, when the ESF 2009 appeared, you said that Mercedes-Benz has many more ideas for new safety systems, and especially in the areas of passive safety and the preventive protection system PRE‑SAFE®. Does this still apply in 2019, is Mercedes-Benz still not short of ideas?

Schöneburg: We are certainly not short of ideas for safety innovations. 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. And as was already seen with the ESF 2009, this is more than just an exercise. Many of the ideas presented with it have meanwhile entered series production at Mercedes-Benz.

Can you give us an example please?

Certainly. For example the partial high beam now implemented in Adaptive High Beam Assist Plus. Or the beltbag now available for the E and S-Class: this inflatable seat belt can lower the risk of injury to rear passengers during a frontal impact, by reducing the load on the ribcage. And what was called PRE-SAFE® Pulse in the ESF 2009 is now available for the E-Class, CLS and GLE as PRE-SAFE® Impulse Side: in the event of an impending side impact, this system is preventively able to move the driver or front passenger a short distance away from the danger area. Together with the familiar PRE-SAFE® protection concepts for frontal and rear-end collisions, it creates something of a virtual crumple zone around the vehicle. We call this PRE-SAFE® 360°.

The original concept of the crumple zone as an area specifically designed to deform in an impact was invented by the Mercedes-Benz safety pioneer Béla Barényi. What exactly do you mean by a virtual crumple zone?

The purpose of the physical crumple zone is to absorb energy during an accident, to protect the occupants. The virtual crumple zone covers the time from the moment when the vehicle reacts to its sensors to the moment of the impact. If an object or other road user enters the virtual crumple zone, many valuable measures can already be implemented to protect the occupants and accident partner. This is possible with PRE-SAFE® and PRE-SAFE® Impulse systems, but also with the help of conventional restraint systems.

Does this primarily benefit the driver and front passenger, or also passengers in the rear?

The purpose of the virtual crumple zone is to mitigate the severity of accidents, and in many cases it helps all those involved. However, another key aspect of the ESF 2019 is safety for rear seat passengers. The innovations in this area include the rear airbag with its groundbreaking tubular structure and the child seat with PRE-SAFE® functions. The latter preventively tensions the belts of the child seat before a crash, and extends side-mounted impact protection elements.

The ESF 2009 was based on an S-Class, but for the first time the ESF 2019 is an SUV. Why?

That's correct, the ESF 2019 is based on the new GLE. SUVs are very popular with our customers, and we currently have seven successful models in the range. It was therefore only logical to use an SUV as an example in which to present the safety features of tomorrow. In addition, the new GLE with its innovative driving assistance systems is currently a pacemaker in the field of vehicle safety.

Mercedes‑Benz has always concerned itself with the safety of other road users – does that still apply?

Yes, and the ESF 2019 continues this with new ideas. One example is cooperative communication with the vehicle's surroundings: the ESF 2019 is also able to warn other road users, even when parked at the roadside and not involved. It also has 360° pedestrian protection, which can defuse hazardous situations with more vulnerable road users when parking and manoeuvring. Furthermore, the familiar Active Brake Assist has been configured for more traffic situations.

Everybody has probably had tricky situations with pedestrians, and the active systems you mention can help. Are the passive safety systems also developed on the basis of real accidents?

Of course, because our safety philosophy is "Real Life Safety". Alongside simulations and crash tests, what actually happens in accidents is an important aspect for us. Accordingly we have developed strict in-house safety regulations that in many cases go well beyond the legal requirements or rating requirements. Our accident research unit is among the oldest in the industry: for 50 years our in-house experts have examined serious accidents involving current Mercedes-Benz vehicles. The aim is to learn from them, and incorporate the findings into the designs of new models. Safety continues to be our core brand value.

But will there be accidents at all in the future? After all, the ESF 2019 is a car that can drive in fully-automated mode in many situations.

The great advantage of automating driving functions is that in the future, fewer accidents might be caused by driver error. However, there will undoubtedly be mixed traffic consisting of automated and non-automated vehicles for many years. Furthermore, the increasing number of sensors opens up potentials for passive safety - the virtual crumple zone.

But it will still not be possible to do without real crumple zones and modern restraint systems, right?

That's correct. Because even fully-automated and driverless vehicles will encounter physical limits. A tree might fall directly ahead of the car during a storm, leaving no time to brake or take evasive action, or accidents can be caused by other road users. After all, not all vehicles will already be automated tomorrow. There are therefore ideas in the ESF 2019 that improve protection for passengers in the rear. For example, we encourage them to fasten their seat belts. The innovative tubular structure rear airbag is another good example. And very importantly for me personally, there are many ideas in the ESF 2019 for improved child protection – both inside and outside the car.

Automated cars such as the ESF 2019 are a contribution to Vision Zero, the vision of driving without road deaths or injuries. But do new challenges arise as well?

Yes, because the much more flexible seating positions require a different form of occupant protection. Naturally we also give our attention to this – and in the ESF 2019 we reveal a number of ideas such as the new design of the driver airbag, or the integral sidebag that deploys from the seat backrest on both sides. One thing is clear: a safe vehicle uses all possible means of avoiding accidents, but is always prepared for the eventuality of an accident. This is why all of our future models, including the automated ones, will of course meet our stringent crash safety requirements.