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Stuttgart. Electric drive systems and automated driving are key technologies for the mobility of the future. This leads to changes in the requirements for in-car safety technology: firstly, much more flexible seating positions in the interior of such vehicles require a different form of occupant protection. And secondly, empathy and trust are central factors for the acceptance of self-driving vehicles. Other road users must be able to recognise intuitively what an automated vehicle intends to do, as in many situations there will be no driver to communicate this. With the new Experimental Safety Vehicle ESF 2019, Mercedes-Benz is giving an insight into the ideas that the company’s safety experts are researching and working on. Among the one dozen or so innovations, some are near-series developments and some look well into the future.

The ESF 2019 is based on the new Mercedes-Benz GLE, is capable of automated driving in many situations and has a plug-in hybrid drive system. In June 2019 the ESF 2019 will make its grand appearance before experts at the ESV convention in Eindhoven (Netherlands). It will then make its public appearance at the International Motor Show (IAA) in Frankfurt in September 2019. In some respects the ESF 2019 is a preview of what is to come, in others a vision and in yet others a contribution to the general discussion, but it is also a tool for improved traffic safety in the great tradition of Mercedes-Benz.

“Safety is part of the brand DNA of Mercedes-Benz. We have repeatedly demonstrated that we are not short of ideas in this field since the 1970s, with our Experimental Safety Vehicles. The new ESF 2019 reflects the mobility of the future, and presents a wide variety of innovations which we are currently researching and developing. And I can already say this much: some of the functions are very close to series production,” says Ola Källenius, Member of the Daimler AG Executive Board responsible for Mercedes-Benz Cars Development.

“Safety continues to be our core brand value,” says Prof. Dr.-Ing. Rodolfo Schöneburg, Head of the Vehicle Safety, Durability and Corrosion Protection Centre at Mercedes-Benz Cars. “The great advantage of automating driving functions is that in the future, fewer accidents will be caused by driver error. However, automated and driverless vehicles also come up against physical limits, and there will undoubtedly be mixed traffic consisting of automated and non-automated vehicles for many years.”

More than one dozen innovations: more protection for passengers and partners

An overview of the key topics covered by the ESF 2019:

  • All-round driver safety: When the ESF 2019 is driving in automated mode, the steering wheel and pedal cluster are retracted to reduce the risk of injury during a crash. The greater interior flexibility requires new ideas for restraint systems (seat-integrated belt) and airbags with alternative installation spaces (driver airbag in the dashboard, integral sidebag in the side bolsters of the seat backrests). However, the ESF 2019 also has ideas for a manual driving mode: With daylight-like light from the sun visor, vitalising interior light can help to keep the driver alert.
  • Cooperative communication with the environment: For people to gain trust in the automated vehicle, they must immediately and intuitively be able to recognise what it intends to do. In this respect the ESF 2019 takes human road users very much into consideration. Its sensors not only keep an eye on the traffic, it communicates in all directions and can also warn other road users. The ESF 2019 is also equipped with the revolutionary headlamp technology DIGITAL LIGHT, with practically dazzle-free high beam in HD quality and a resolution of more than two million pixels.
  • Child safety: With the child seat concept PRE-SAFE® Child, the seat belt is preventively tensioned and side-mounted impact protection elements are extended before a crash. Thanks to the tensioned belt, the child is more firmly and accurately fixed in the seat while belt slack is reduced. This considerably reduces the loads acting on the child. Monitoring of seat installation and the child’s vital signs are other functions integrated into the seat.
  • Securing traffic hazards: The ESF 2019 shows how the scenes of accidents or breakdowns could be secured more safely with innovations such as a small robot that automatically emerges from the vehicle’s rear following an incident, and positions itself at the roadside as a warning triangle. Other ideas are a warning triangle that folds out of the vehicle roof at the same time, and the rear window as a communication surface.
  • New PRE-SAFE® functions: PRE-SAFE® Curve (which uses the belt tensioner to warn the driver that he/she has possibly underestimated an approaching bend) and PRE-SAFE® side lights with electro-luminescent paint can defuse potentially hazardous situations. PRE-SAFE® Impulse Rear is able to extend the protection of passengers and others involved in an accident at the end of a traffic tailback.
  • Safety and comfort in the rear: An innovative rear airbag uses a special new inflation concept to deploy and position the airbag. It has a special tubular structure for this purpose. With belt-feeders, belt buckle illumination, USB belt buckles and belt heating, the ESF 2019 implements a number of ideas by which passengers on the rear seats might be motivated to wear seat belts using new methods.
  • Active safety: Active Brake Assist with extended functions in the ESF 2019 provides additional protection, especially in potentially dangerous traffic situations with unprotected road users. When turning, it now also detects pedestrians and cyclists moving in parallel to the original direction of travel. If a collision with unprotected road users crossing the road into which the vehicle is turning is imminent, the driver receives a visual and audible warning. Autonomous braking is initiated if the driver fails to react. The same also applies if there are any cyclists in the blind spot when turning to the right. If there is a risk of collision with cross-traffic when turning off or crossing a road, the system now prevents the driver from moving off and, if necessary, stops the vehicle, including from walking speed, by means of autonomous braking. The 360° pedestrian protection system warns and assists while parking and manoeuvring if there is a risk of collision with more vulnerable road users (pedestrians, cyclists), right up to autonomous braking. 

“Real Life Safety” philosophy: learning from real accidents

In its safety development work, Mercedes-Benz takes its lead from real accidents for the protection of all road users. This Real Life Safety philosophy not only includes simulations and crash tests, legal requirements and published ratings. On the basis of what actually happens in accidents, it develops strict in-house safety regulations that in many cases go well beyond the legal provisions or rating requirements.

The key is accident research: for 50 years, 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.

New ideas and safety concepts such as those shown in the ESF 2019 can be tested and validated e.g. at the Technology Centre for Vehicle Safety (TFS). Opened in November 2016, the TFS is part of the development centre in Sindelfingen and one of the world’s most modern crash test centres. Mercedes-Benz has a wide range of test facilities at the TFS, so as to remain the trailblazer in vehicle safety.

The history of the ESF models: from research to series production

Mercedes-Benz is continuing a long-standing tradition with the ESF 2019: For the ESV Safety Conferences held from 1971 to 1975, the safety experts built more than 30 experimental vehicles which they crash-tested to achieve the always visionary safety objectives of Mercedes-Benz. Four of these vehicles – ESF 5, ESF 13 (both based on the medium-class W 114/”Stroke/8″ series), ESF 22 and ESF 24 (both based on the W 116-series S-Class) – were presented to the public.

The first ESF vehicle for many years, and the direct predecessor to the ESF 2019, was the ESF 2009. This research vehicle celebrated its premiere on 15 June 2009, at the 21st ESV (Enhanced Safety of Vehicles) conference) in Stuttgart. Numerous innovations in the ESF 2009 have meanwhile entered series production. These include e.g. the beltbag available for the S-Class, PRE-SAFE Impulse Side for the E-Class, CLS and GLE and Active High Beam Assist Plus, which is available for many model series.

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 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 environment: 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 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 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.

Automated cars such as the ESF 2019 bring the vision of accident-free driving a bit closer. However, is the era of automated and autonomous driving, we need a comprehensive safety concept with many innovative solutions, as passengers might be seated much more flexibly in the interior than they are today.

The ESF 2019 adapts itself to the situation: when it is driving in automated mode, the steering wheel andpedal cluster are retracted. Together with the level, padded floor, this can not only reduce the risk of injury in a crash, but also clearly indicates that the vehicle is in automated mode.

Coordinated interaction between the seat belts, belt tensioners, belt force limiters and airbags is a standard feature of Mercedes-Benz restraint systems. As the passengers in automated vehicles might not always be in the best possible seating position in relation to present restraint systems, new ideas are necessary.

For example, the belt system has been integrated into the front seats, so that even when the occupant is in a more relaxed position, the belt fits as closely as possible. The belt system also has an electrically powered high-performance belt tensioner. This not only tensions in PRE-SAFE® situations, but is also able to respond at the moment of impact and tension the occupant’s seat belt to an extent adequate to ensure that even when projected forward, he/she is pulled back into a more favourable, upright position.

The new flexibility in the interior requires new airbag systems with alternative installation spaces. In the ESF 2019, for example, the driver airbag is located in the dashboard, not the steering wheel. This deployment concept familiar from the front passenger airbag, plus the three-dimensional airbag shape this makes possible, allows greater coverage. For a better view of the instruments and displays, and to position the airbag where it is least obstructed, the steering wheel has a flattened upper section. The Steer-By-Wire technology in the ESF 2019 – in which steering commands are transmitted electrically and not mechanically – supports the new, slightly rectangular steering wheel geometry. As the steering ratio is now variably controllable, it is no longer necessary to cross one hand over the other on the steering wheel when steering. Manoeuvring, for example, requires significantly less movement of the steering wheel, even for a large turning angle.

Another completely new development is also due to the great seating flexibility: the integral sidebag, which deploys from the side bolsters of the seat backrest on both sides. The wing-shaped airbag wraps itself around the shoulders, arms and head of the seat occupant. Its special feature is that it not only protects the passenger on the side facing the impact. As a so-called middle airbag, it can cushion the occupant on the side not facing the impact (known as a far-side impact) and prevent him/her from moving too close to another front seat occupant.

Remaining fit with light from the sun visor: Vitalising interior light

For Mercedes-Benz, the focus is on the driver when it comes to preventing accidents. Good visibility and relaxed driving are two basic factors that have always been inherent to our vehicles. Our engineers refer to this as “driver-fitness safety”.

The driver and passengers in a vehicle sit in relative darkness. Studies have shown that only around 5 to 20 percent of daylight reaches the eyes of the occupants. This can lead to a faster decline in alertness and concentration. Mercedes-Benz shows an innovative solution in the ESF 2019, with vitalising interior light: biologically effective, daylight-like light from the sun visor supplements the natural daylight without dazzle and keeps the body in its natural biological rhythm. This keeps the driver fitter.

Mercedes-Benz has already tested vitalising interior light during several studies conducted with test subjects. At the end of 2017 a team of researchers used two Mercedes-Benz Actros TopFit trucks to examine the effects of additional light on the mental state and performance of truck drivers. In addition to the vitalising interior light while on the move, they also examined a stimulating light shower during breaks and a vitalising light alarm in the morning. The combination of these three light programmes forms a biologically effective system. The tests showed that with the vitalising interior light, the ability to react remained more constant and there were fewer incorrect responses in monotonous driving conditions. More information on the study in Finland can be found here.

The vitalising interior light has also been tested in passenger cars as part of a scientific study: especially in the morning, the test subjects tended to react more quickly thanks to the lighting, and made fewer mistakes at the wheel. This was the result of the last study conducted in January and February 2018, using converted E-Class cars and around 40 test subjects. It was found that with vitalising interior light – unlike on comparative test runs without it – no warnings were needed from ATTENTION ASSIST. Moreover, the drivers tended to be in a more alert state with this lighting in the vehicle. EEG measurements (electroencephalograms) of brain waves recorded during journeys and evaluated also confirm this.

Integral sidebag
FunctionThis wing-shaped airbag (volume: approx. 40 litres) deploys on both sides from the side bolsters of the driver and front passenger seat backrests. Together with the shoulder and thorax areas, it envelops the arms and head of the seat occupant. As the sidebag is integrated into the backrest, its protective effect is substantially irrespective of the seat’s position and backrest angle.


In detailThe airbag not only protects the occupant on the side facing the impact. As a so-called interseat airbag, it can cushion the occupant on the side not facing the impact (known as a far-side impact) and prevent him/her from moving too close to the centre of the vehicle. If moved too far sideways, there could e.g. be a collision with another occupant.


SensorsCurrent airbag sensors



New driver airbag and new steering wheel and pedal cluster concept
FunctionThe driver airbag (volume: approx. 120 litres) of the ESF 2019 is integrated into the upper dashboard section, like present front passenger airbags. When triggered it deploys across the steering wheel.


In detail·         The new deployment concept and three-dimensional airbag shape allow a larger area of coverage than a rotationally symmetrical driver airbag in the steering wheel.

·         Furthermore, this also allows concepts with different airbag depths to be realised depending on the occupant’s position. This is because in automated mode, the steering wheel and driver positions are not as closely defined as in today’s manually steered cars.


Additional function·         In automated driving mode, the steering wheel is always in a parked position and does not turn.

·         In addition the pedal cluster is retracted into the carpeted floor so that the contour of the footwell is as level as possible.

·         If the ESF 2019 is being steered by a driver, the steering wheel is retracted by 100 millimetres when the airbag is triggered. This is done pyrotechnically within milliseconds.



What accident research says3.7 percent of the serious injuries (category AIS2+) sustained by front car occupants and caused by components in the interior are mainly due to parts of the pedal cluster. That is the result of a GIDAS documentation from 12/2018[1]. Retracting the pedal cluster when in automated driving mode could reduce this risk.


SensorsCurrent crash sensors
Seat-integrated seat belt and electric high-performance belt tensioner
FunctionThe seat-integrated belt is reversibly tensioned by an electric motor, and fully supports the familiar PRE-SAFE® functions.
In detail·         The electric high-performance belt tensioners are triggered even before the actual crash, using the environmental sensors.

·         They exert many times the force of a present PRE-SAFE®tensioner, and are capable of an occupant restraining effect comparable to that of a pyrotechnical belt tensioner.

·         These powerful tensioners are also capable of pulling occupants who have been moved forwards back into a more favourable, upright position.

·         These tensioners can also operate adaptively by using suitable interior sensors and occupant classification. In the event of a crash, the protective effect can also be varied depending on whether a petite 50 kg woman or a tall 100 kg man is sitting on the seat.

·         The belt tensioner is integrated into the backrest as part of the inertia-reel. As a result, the belt fits the body as closely as possible in all seating positions (and especially also if the passengers are in a relaxed seating position while car is in automated mode).

Additional functionElectric belt tensioners tighten the belt in different driving situations classified as critical. Once the driving situation is considered safe again, the electric belt tensioning is released and the belt system returns to standard operating mode. This means that unlike pyrotechnical belt tensioners, electric belt tensioners are reusable after tensioning.
SensorsABS, environmental and crash sensors
Vitalising interior light
FunctionThe body’s natural rhythm is maintained by biologically effective, daylight-like light. This allows the driver to stay fitter – a virtual “open-air driving” effect sets in. The resulting improvement in driver-fitness safety helps to reduce the risk of accidents.
In detail·         A flush-fitted light with special LEDs in the driver’s sun visor shines light with a high blue content at the driver. This is done at daytime, while the vehicle is moving.

·         In addition the same light source allows an activating “light shower” and a vitalising “light alarm” following a powernap programme, either when stationary, in the rear during a journey or conceivably during automated driving.

·         In 2001 researchers discovered[2] a third light receptor in the eye’s retina apart from the familiar cones (for colour vision) and rods (for twilight vision). These special ganglia cells are light-sensitive, but are not there for vision. Above all, they respond to the blue light in the daylight colour spectrum, and regulate biological processes in the body when light falls on them. These include controlling levels of the hormones cortisol (stress hormone) and melatonin (sleep hormone) in the human body. This process leads to us feeling awake and energetic or tired and in need of regeneration.

SensorsA light sensor in the windscreen registers the ambient light conditions and dims the light in twilight or in tunnels. This prevents dazzle and ensures that the system only works during the daytime.

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

[2] Brainard et al 2001: Action Spectrum for Melatonin Regulation in Humans: Evidence for a Novel Circadian Photoreceptor.