Interview: "The results of our work are incorporated into series production or model updates"

Heiko Bürkle, 53, has been Team Manager for Accident Research/Risk Assessment at Mercedes-Benz since 2001. After his training at the then Daimler-Benz AG from 1984-86, the native of Stuttgart studied automotive engineering at the Esslingen University of Applied Sciences. He wrote his thesis in the engine testing department of Mercedes-Benz in Brazil. After his return, he joined DEKRA AG as an accident researcher and developed basic principles of reconstruction and analysis for automotive experts and judicial expert witnesses. Since 2001, he has been the Team Manager for Accident Research/Risk Assessment at Mercedes-Benz. We talked to him about the investigation of accidents with all the new aspects and modern means of data collection.

Mr Bürkle, a good 50 years ago when Mercedes-Benz Accident Research began its work, the roads were much more dangerous than today. In 1970, over 21,000 people died in traffic accidents in the old Federal Republic of Germany alone. In 2018, that number was 3275 in all of Germany, or about 85 percent less. Do we still need
in-house accident research at all?

Bürkle: Of course, because every traffic fatality and every traffic casualty is one too many. The EU is even pursuing the Vision Zero: EU Commissioner Violeta Burc announced the ambitious goal that no one should die on Europe's roads from 2050 onwards.

What kind of accidents are the most frequent on Europe's roads currently?

Bürkle: Most accidents happen when making a turn, turning around, merging and moving off as well as by someone ignoring the right of way. Most of the times it involves human error.

What criteria does an accident have to meet to be analysed by Mercedes-Benz Accident Research?

Bürkle: The accident must have happened in our deployment area – within a radius of about 200 kilometres of Sindelfingen – and meet one of three main criteria such as major deformation, airbag deployment and occupant injury. Fourthly, it must always involve a current Mercedes-Benz vehicle, because the results of our work cannot be incorporated into the series production or the model update of vehicles that are no longer being built. And the owner or keeper of the vehicle must have consented prior to the investigation, of course.

Are there vehicles that Accident Research particularly focused on in 2018?

Bürkle: No, we did not have a special focus. Particularly interesting were the accidents we investigated that involved vehicles with EQ Boost, that is to say with 48-volt technology, as well as the first electric vehicles. Our analyses showed that our requirements regarding the timely automatic deactivation of 48-volt and of high-voltage systems, respectively, were met as intended.

And you provide colleagues in Development with the appropriate feedback when something needs improving from the perspective of the real-life accidents?

Bürkle: Precisely. In this manner, our work has contributed to safety innovations making their way into series production at Mercedes-Benz: for example, in the late 1970s, the concept of the forked front member in the crash structure or the preventive occupant protection system PRE-SAFE® starting in 2002. The latest insights were also incorporated into the ESF 2019.

Do you have another current example?

Bürkle: Of course. The exit warning of Active Blind Spot Assist, for instance, which Mercedes-Benz launched with the new A-Class. The driver can be warned of another road user in the blind spot when opening the door. This can prevent collisions with cyclists when you open the door, for example. Colleagues from Development had asked us beforehand to analyse based on the accident statistics how high the risk to cyclists is of being injured by the opening of doors of stationary cars.

And what did your investigation find?

Bürkle: The GIDAS[1] database recorded 280 accidents of this type up to 2017. In the vast majority of the cases, namely 84 percent, the cyclists hit the left door of the car. The vehicle was therefore parked on the right side of the street. And 60 percent of all injuries as well as 80 percent of the serious injuries were not caused by the collision with the car, but by the subsequent contact with the road. But our exit warning helps to prevent precisely such falls.

Mercedes-Benz Accident Research is now working globally – you have colleagues in India and China?

Bürkle: Yes, because there are countries with many more vehicles on the road than in Europe, where traffic differs greatly from ours and where a disproportionately high number of road users are killed. That is also why we have had the Safe Roads campaign of Mercedes-Benz for several years now. Many traffic fatalities could be prevented by education, a heightened awareness of traffic safety as well as by strict compliance with safety rules. Safe Roads is an interactive road show with exhibits, images, research reports and physics experiments providing a tangible experience of safety for the visitors. At the end of November 2019, we will hold the "Safe Roads India Summit 2019" in New Delhi (India) and will even showcase the new Experimental Safety Vehicle ESF 2019 there.

A personal question at the end: Isn't your work quite stressful? How do manage to get away from it all in the evening without the images and impressions of a serious accident lingering in your mind?

Bürkle: I used to work in an automotive expert organisation and was at the scene of accidents together with the police and emergency responders. That is why I am able to deal with these often tragic situations to a certain extent. You have to resolutely switch your mind to end-of-day mode after work, otherwise you won't be able to do this job for long. However, these images motivate my staff and I to contribute all our insights to the improvement of vehicle safety. And luckily, we do have positive experiences here: when we are done inspecting the badly destroyed accident wrecks at the dealerships, we are sometimes surprised how minor the injuries are which the occupants sustained in the collision in their Mercedes-Benz. And occasionally we also receive thank-you letters from our customers. Naturally we are particularly delighted by them.

[1] GIDAS stands for German In-Depth Accident Study. GIDAS is a cooperative project between the German Federal Highway Institute (BASt) and Forschungsvereinigung Automobiltechnik e.V.

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