1986: Start of the PROMETHEUS research program

1986: Start of the PROMETHEUS research program
October 2007
  • Solving traffic problems with targeted research
  • Innovations from the PROMETHEUS program incorporated in modern vehicles
  • Unique cooperation for safeguarding the competitiveness of European motor manufacturers
Each new Mercedes-Benz model is also an answer to contemporary questions. Safety, environmental protection, comfort: these and other factors determine the properties and equipment of state-of-the-art vehicles. The Stuttgart-based motor manufacturer is able to look back on a long tradition of solving problems and incorporating the solutions in outstanding products – from the first two automobiles of 1886 through to the present-day lineup.
The PROMETHEUS project is a perfect example of this problem-solving competence. It was launched in 1986 by the then Daimler-Benz AG and was carried on as a cooperative venture of several European motor manufacturers, electronics producers and suppliers, universities and institutes for eight years. This cooperation resulted in numerous technologies with great benefits, which Mercedes-Benz translated into concrete technical products, among them the autonomous intelligent cruise control system DISTRONIC PLUS and the automatic PRE-SAFE® brakes. At the same time, these and other technologies play a crucial role in the vision of accident-free driving – a major moving force behind many of the company’s innovations in present-day and future motor vehicles. The PROMETHEUS research program (Program for European Traffic with Highest Efficiency and Unprecedented Safety) thus had a long-term impact and continues to influence development to this day.
PROMETHEUS also demonstrated that it pays for motor manufacturers to think far ahead where technological developments are concerned – at times many years ahead. Only on this basis is a manufacturer able to set new standards in automotive engineering time and again – and customers are able to develop deeply rooted trust in the products. This thinking ahead also means that present-day and future challenges revolving around the car and traffic are identified. These challenges have to be analyzed as the basis for elaborating exhaustive solutions which, in turn, are then translated into fascinating new vehicles. The PROMETHEUS project proceeded according to these principles – the focus was, after all, on nothing less than future mobility. And the safeguarding of future mobility has always been – and continues to be – the mission of Mercedes-Benz.
Traffic problems as the starting point for PROMETHEUS
What can be done to ensure that the car will permit the greatest possible mobility in the future as well? How can safety be increased and accident figures lowered despite the growing number of vehicles? How can economic efficiency be enhanced? How can the flow of traffic be harmonized without new roads being built? And how can all this be achieved with the greatest possible protection of the environment?
The starting point for PROMETHEUS was a range of pressing traffic problems at the time. These were to be solved in an approach adopted by all the motor manufacturers involved, using the latest technologies, with the aim of safeguarding the competitiveness of the European motor industry in the long term through strengthening its competence in key fields. “ It is obvious that isolated measures on the vehicle or measures adopted by individual manufacturers [...] will not take us very far,” said Rolf Helber, head of the Motor Vehicles and Traffic department at Mercedes-Benz, at a PROMETHEUS workshop in 1992.
The project was launched on October 1, 1986 and was carried on for eight years. The results were presented to the public in October 1994. PROMETHEUS had set itself the following sub-targets:
1) Increase in traffic safety
2) Improvement of environmental compatibility
3) Minimization of energy consumption
4) Enhancement of comfort
After a detailed problem analysis, over 700 research projects were defined. The motor manufacturers selected some 140 of these projects and specified them in greater detail with a view to the PROMETHEUS targets.
We realized very quickly that there could be just one solution to the growing traffic problems,” remembers Walter Ziegler, PROMETHEUS project manager at the Mercedes-Benz research institute. “We had to integrate new technologies – above all microelectronics, sensor technology, telecommunications and information processing – in road traffic as comprehensively as possible.” PROMETHEUS thus reflected the contemporary situation and the general developments in engineering: electronics for use in motor vehicles arrived on the scene in the 1970s and were incorporated ever more widely from the 1980s.
The pinnacle of intelligent car design was reached with our VITA vehicle,” says Berthold Ulmer, graduate engineer in Daimler-Benz Vehicle Research at the time. Behind the windshield and rear screen of an S-Class car, small video cameras were hidden which permitted the car’s operation by means of automatic image processing. With its electronic eyes, the onboard computer monitored what was happening around the car. VITA – the acronym stands for “Vision Information Technology Application” – was a genuine autopilot which was capable of braking, accelerating and steering. The computer identified the course of the road and at the same time recognized whether the car was at risk of colliding with other objects. An early version of the VITA vehicle was set up on the basis of a Mercedes-Benz Vario van whose spacious load compartment was filled with computer hardware; at a later stage of development, the S-Class already represented an important step in the direction of miniaturization – and thus of production maturity. “Automatic collision prevention was the key target of this PROMETHEUS sub-project,” says Ulmer, “we definitely did not intend to replace the driver by VITA.” The researchers primarily wanted to prove that accidents can be prevented by means of computer vision.
Cruise control, DISTRONIC and PRE-SAFE® brakes
A VITA sub-project was the autonomous intelligent cruise control system which always maintained the appropriate safety distance. When the infrared sensor discovered a slower object ahead, the car was automatically decelerated until a safe distance was reached. The control system could be overruled by the driver at any time. The control unit was based on fuzzy technology which copied the control behavior of the driver. Daimler-Benz carried on the project, using radar sensors, under the name TRAFFONIC. Such a system forms part of the standard specifications of Mercedes-Benz cars today – with the designations DISTRONIC or DISTRONIC PLUS. And the automatic PRE-SAFE® brakes have equally been standard for a long time.
Other innovations like the lane-change assistant and the parking aid also go back to the PROMETHEUS research project. “It was far ahead of its time,” is how Werner Breitschwerdt sums up the project in retrospect; in his active time, he was the member of the Board of Management of Daimler-Benz AG with responsibility for Research and Development and finally chairman of the Board. At Daimler AG, PROMETHEUS continues to exist in the vision of accident-free driving. Breitschwerdt: “They all say that this cannot be achieved – but no, it can indeed be accomplished. Accident-free driving must be our goal.”
Communication was writ large in the third PROMETHEUS sub-project. The researchers worked on “dual route guidance” aimed at relieving the driver from stress. The idea was to navigate car drivers through a city’s labyrinth by presenting maps, providing spoken instructions and automatically circumnavigating tailbacks. In addition, drivers received information about the up-to-date route and traffic conditions – in very much the same way as modern navigation systems support drivers, although the precursor still had to make ends meet without satellites: the GPS (Global Positioning System) was not yet available for civilian applications. This sub-project also covered the communication between vehicles with the aim of preventing collisions, for instance, or for warning each other of black-ice patches in a bend. This “car-to-car communication” continues to be the subject of intensive development work. The researchers consider this to be an important step towards even greater traffic safety and thus towards realizing the vision of accident-free driving.
Fleet management: State of the art today
Cross-border communication was the focus of the fourth PROMETHEUS sub-project of the Daimler-Benz researchers: cargo and fleet management. This was to enable haulage operators to utilize the transport capacity available efficiently as well as to react flexibly to unforeseen incidents. The researchers tested an online connection between a haulage company and its vehicles. The scheduler identified the location of the vehicles with the help of terrestrial and satellite-based radio systems. He was able to send messages to the vehicles via a mainframe computer, which were displayed to the drivers. Today, fleet management systems of this kind are state of the art in road haulage.
In another sub-project named STORM (Stuttgart Transport Operation by Regional Management), regional traffic management using ideas and results from the PROMETHEUS project was tested. The traffic infrastructure of the greater Stuttgart area was more efficiently used through networking and the improvement of existing traffic guidance equipment – with the aim of reducing the strain on the environment and improving traffic safety and efficiency in the region. The focus was on providing road users with the information and support required for a responsible choice of the right means of transport – at the right time and the right place.
The PROMETHEUS project ended in the mid-1990s. The companies and institutes involved now continued to pursue their own courses again in the transfer of newly developed technologies to large-scale production. What remains are the present-day impacts of the PROMETHEUS program on modern automobiles. This innovative heritage shows that the determination on the part of Mercedes-Benz to change things and solve problems pays off – as does the stamina required for project work over many years.


  • a91f2179
    Working towards traffic without accidents: adaptive cruise control in testing as part of the PROMETHEUS research project (1986 to 1994).
  • a91f2181
    PROMETHEUS research project (1986 to 1994), test vehicle on the basis of a Mercedes-Benz van. VITA sub-project – a precursor of DISTRONIC PLUS and the automatic PRE-SAFE® brake.
  • D173162
    Perfect guidance: the route guidance computer as part of the PROMETHEUS research project (1986 to 1994) was a precursor of modern navigation systems.
  • a95f216
    Reaching the destination thanks to computers: the first electronic road map formed part of the PROMETHEUS research project (1986 to 1994).