ESF 2019: The mobility of tomorrow — safety first

My Vehicle Safety team works day after day to make our cars even safer. Our new experimental safety vehicle, the ESF 2019 for short, contains over a dozen innovations — developments and ideas that are close to production status and extend our vision far into the future. In this blog post I’d like to briefly present to you the most important highlights of the ESF 2019.

The question we address has always been “How is the mobility of the future changing the safety requirements of tomorrow’s vehicles?” We have always taken this approach, ever since the 1960s and 1970s, when mass motorization was resulting in accidents that were too frequent and too severe. Mercedes-Benz responded to this development by building the first experimental safety vehicles (ESVs) and using them to test many systems for improving passive and active safety. Today these systems have been refined and are installed in almost every car. These systems include antilock braking systems (ABS), seat belt tensioners and seat belt force limiters, airbags, and side impact protection system.

From close-to-production status to science fiction: More than a dozen innovations

Our new experimental safety vehicle, the ESF 2019 for short, contains over a dozen innovations — developments and ideas that are close to production status and extend our vision far into the future. In this blog post I’d like to briefly present to you the most important highlights of the ESF 2019.

The ESF 2019 is based on our new GLE, has a plug-in hybrid drive system, and drives fully autonomously in many situations. A key question we kept in mind during the development process was “What do we have to change in the safety technology if we want to have autonomously driving vehicles in the future?” That’s because most traffic accidents today can be traced back to human error.

This cause of accidents is eliminated in automated vehicles. Nonetheless, I am convinced that traffic accidents will continue to happen. Sudden black ice or spilled cargo from a van are only two of many possible scenarios. Besides, autonomously driving cars and standard vehicles will continue to travel together in road traffic for many years to come. That too harbors the risk of accidents.

No fixed seating: More flexible interiors

Drivers of the ESF 2019 will be able to continue driving themselves or, alternatively, have the car drive in fully automated mode — for example, in the middle of a traffic jam when it’s no fun to do the driving yourself. But what happens to the steering wheel and the pedals when the car is driving autonomously? They are retracted when the ESF 2019 is driving fully autonomously, thus increasing the occupants’ comfort and reducing the risk of injury. That way, it’s always easy to see who or what is in control — a flesh-and-blood driver or the intelligent vehicle.The Experimental Safety Vehicle (ESF) 2019 presents more than one dozen groundbreaking innovations in the field of safety.

Let’s talk a bit more about the second option. Imagine that you’re leaning back and letting the car be your chauffeur. Because you don’t need to have the steering wheel or the pedals within reach, you’ve probably set the backrest of your seat a bit lower and/or moved your seat backward in order to have more legroom. This increased flexibility of the car’s interior makes things difficult for us safety experts, because now we can no longer know precisely what positions the car’s occupants are sitting in.

However, the exact position of the occupants is important for restraint systems such as seat belts, seat belt tensioners, and airbags. That’s why when we developed the ESF 2019 we integrated the seat belts into the seats so that they are always in a defined position no matter how the seat has been adjusted. We’ve also had lots of new ideas about airbags.

Puffed up with pride: New ideas for airbags

Because there will no longer be fixed seat positions in fully autonomously driving cars and big round steering wheels will no longer be necessary, the airbags in the ESF 2019 are based on fresh new ideas.

The driver’s airbag is located in the instrument panel rather than in the steering wheel, as it is in today’s cars. That makes us more independent of the steering wheel, its position, and its shape. In addition, in case of an accident the airbag can cover a larger area.

The next innovation is the integrated sidebag. In case of a side impact, it surrounds the vehicle occupant and protects not only the shoulders and arms but also the head. This airbag is stored in the side bolsters of the seat backrests.

You’ll need even a bit more imagination than that in order to understand the principle behind the innovative rear-seat airbag. You might associate this concept with a bouncy castle or one of the new inflatable tents based on air hoses instead of tent poles. Our innovative rear-seat airbag also uses air hoses that are blown up to form air-filled pipes.

That creates a wing-shaped framework. A big tent-like airbag unfolds between the two wings and fills up with air. Special valves in this casing prevent the air from escaping when a passenger is enveloped by the airbag in case of an accident. That makes it possible to significantly reduce the impact on the head and cervical vertebrae. The new airbag opens up more gently and can avoid potential obstacles. This has created the first-ever possibility of an airbag for the rear seat that operates in case of a head-on collision.

Trust is a must: Cooperative vehicle-to-vehicle communication of the ESF 2019

Let’s stay with the topic of everyday driving just a bit longer. “After you” isn’t always the attitude one encounters from other drivers. But such polite gestures do exist, and in many situations it helps when drivers can communicate with one another. For example, pedestrians in a crosswalk don’t really feel safe unless they’ve looked into the eyes of the driver of an approaching car.

In autonomously driving cars, this kind of communication is no longer possible. That’s why it’s all the more important for these vehicles to communicate their intentions. In order to be accepted, autonomously driving cars must create trust through communication. Imagine that you’re standing at a pedestrian crossing and watching an autonomously driving car approach you. How can you know whether it will stop for you or not?

The ESF 2019 communicates with its surroundings in several ways. We engineers call this “cooperative vehicle-to-surroundings communication.” One possibility is the projection of a message on the rear window. Let’s stay with the example of the pedestrian. If the ESF is about to stop for a pedestrian crossing the street, the corresponding symbol appears on its rear window.

That shows the vehicles behind it why the ESF is stopping. In addition, a camera films the pedestrian who is in front of the vehicle, and this image is projected live onto the rear window. That makes the ESF “transparent” for other road users. Our intention was to make sure that the vehicle’s behavior would be clearly communicated and the drivers behind it would not react by trying to overtake it.

Transporting children: The integrated child-seat concept PRE-SAFE® Child

Mercedes-Benz has implemented its PRE-SAFE® concept since 2002. I had the privilege of helping to develop this system. The reasoning behind it went as follows: With the help of its sensors, the intelligent car recognizes that an accident is impending. If it registers signals of this kind, PRE-SAFE® is activated before the accident actually occurs. We refer to this as a “virtual buffer zone.” If an object or a road user enters this zone, effective measures can still be taken to protect the vehicle occupants and the other road user. The preventive protective measures for the occupants in series-produced vehicles are clearly explained here, for example.

In the ESF 2019 we show how the PRE-SAFE® Child concept for a car seat functions to proactively protect children. The seat belts of this car seat can be preventively tensioned before a possible crash in order to hold the child more firmly in place in the car seat. The impact on the child’s body is significantly lessened if an accident actually does take place. In addition, side impact protection elements are integrated into the car seat. They can also be activated in the event of an impending accident.

Babyphone 4.0: Knowing that your child is comfortable

I’ll never forget that when my children were young and we wanted to drive somewhere with them, we had to fumble around for a long time with the seat belts in the back seat in order to get the child seats installed. So it’s no wonder that child seats are often not installed correctly, even in the age of Isofix. Our approach to a solution was to mount symbols directly on the car seat and provide a corresponding animated film clip on the media display that will help parents install car seats correctly in the future.

Another practical aspect is that the car seat monitors the child’s temperature, pulse, breathing, and sleep behavior so that the parents don’t have to worry. In effect, it’s a Babyphone 4.0. If the child is comfortable, a corresponding smiley symbol appears on the media display. And a live video clip can even be shown if the car is not moving.

Hello, stay awake: Keeping an eye on the body’s internal clock

We want the adults on board to feel comfortable too. They need to stay alert and able to take over control of the ESF 2019. It’s not always easy to stay awake and alert. When winter days grow very short and it feels as though the day never really becomes bright, we tend to feel tired. The ESF 2019 counteracts this impression by lighting up its interior from the sun visor to a degree of brightness that is similar to daylight.

Because daylight is one factor determining the tempo of our internal clock, the driver stays more alert and more capable of action. We’ve already tested this system, which we call Vitalizing interior light, in several studies we’ve carried out in trucks and cars. The system also functions as a “cascade of light” that makes us feel fresh when we get out of the car after an autonomous drive. This too is a contribution to the mobility of tomorrow.


Professor Rodolfo Schöneburg, who was born on October 30, 1959, studied aerospace technology and received his doctorate at the Technische Universität Berlin. He holds an honorary professorship at the University of Applied Sciences (HTW) Dresden. He has headed the Center for Vehicle Safety, Durability, and Corrosion Protection at Mercedes-Benz since April 1999. The preventive occupant protection system PRE-SAFE® went into series production under his leadership in 2002, thus launching a new era of vehicle safety at Mercedes-Benz. Schöneburg is a passionate surfer and motorcyclist.