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viernes, 12 de junio de 2009

The New Mercedes

An experimental concept car from Mercedes-Benz turns turns the entire vehicle into an airbag using novel metal panels that inflate moments before impact.

The unimaginatively named ESF 2009 Experimental Safety Vehicle features gadgetry and safety features akin to a moon shot. Chassis components inflate to maximize impact resistance. An airbag under the car slows and supports the vehicle in a crash. Seats protect passengers like eggs in a carton. The list goes on.

“Safety is a central element of the Mercedes-Benz brand,” Dr. Dieter Zetsche, Daimler chairman and Mercedes CEO, said in a statement. “In this respect we have been setting the pace in the market for almost 70 years. The ESF 2009 shows that we still have plenty of ideas and the absolute will to lead the automobile industry in this field even in the future.”

The ESF is just a concept at this point, and it could be years before any of its features appear in showrooms. But the car highlights the efforts automakers are making to build cars that protect us from each other And ourselves.

Volvo, for example, is determined to offer an almost injury-proof car by 2020, an effort Sweden’s head of traffic safety has called the biggest revolution in automaking since the invention of the seat-belt. Automakers are pouring vast sums into research and development into the campaign to increase safety, something Mercedes says is imperative even as the industry takes a beating from the economy.

“Even in economically difficult times, we refuse to make any cuts where innovation is concerned,” said Dr. Thomas Weber, who serves on Daimler’s R&D board.

The ESF 2009, based on the company’s $90,000 S 400 Hybrid, is the first no-holds-barred safety concept car Mercedes has built since 1974, and it highlights some of the company’s best engineering. The two centerpieces of the car are “Pre-Safe” inflating chassis components and the “Braking Bag” under the car.

Pre-safe uses inflatable metal structures within the body to increase impact absorption. Mercedes says they inflate (see diagram below) to 145 to 290 PSI within fractions of a second when on-board sensors detect a crash is imminent.

The braking bag, installed between the front axle and the underbody, works just like the airbag in a steering wheel. When sensors detect an impending crash, the bag inflates, briefly increasing the rate of deceleration to 20 meters per second squared. The bag also raises the car as much as 8 centimeters to minimize brake dive, which occurs when you stomp on the brake. It sounds crazy, but Mercedes says it works.

“Initial trials of the principle have shown this idea to have considerable potential,” Dr. Ing. Rodolfo Schöneburg, the company’s head of safety development, said in a statement. “In the next few years we intend to research and develop this potential further.”

The car features an infrared camera to detect pedestrian, deer and other hazards. Mercedes also introduced something it calls “Interactive Vehicle Communication.” It uses a variety of sensors, cameras and wireless networks to provide real-time information about everything from the weather to local road conditions. Mercedes, which spent seven years working on the system, is by no means alone in developing this technology. Several automakers are working to bring wireless communication into cars, and researchers in Australia have developed cars that can convey such information and “talk” to other vehicles.

Mercedes rolled out a slew of passenger protection features in the ESP 2009, including “belt bags” that combine a seat belt with an airbag and “interseat protection.” That system is essentially a pair of airbags, one up front and one in the rear, between the seats. They inflate in a crash to protect passengers like eggs in a carton. Toyota is working on a similar system.

Other features include an improved version of the Pre-Safe passenger restraint system called Pre-Safe Pulse that moves passengers ever-so-slightly toward the center of the car in a side-impact crash. The “Child Protect” baby seat features padded bolsters that cradle the child’s head in a crash. There’s also a child-cam that let’s you keep an eye on Junior without taking your eyes off the road.

The list goes on and on - the press briefing of the car’s features runs 42 pages - but you get the idea. And Mercedes is nowhere near done.

“We have a wealth of ideas on how safety might be improved still further,” Schöneburg said. “Some of these can be realized within a relatively short time. Other concepts like the inflatable metal sections in PRE-Safe Structure lie well in the future.”

Photos: Mercedes Benz. The main photo shows the display of the Interavtive Vehicle Communications system.

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