Safety, it's not exciting, right? Not really, but then I'll bet there are a few of you who might not be here were it not for the people I've been spending some time with. It is 40 years since Mercedes-Benz added ABS to its S-Class, and it's just opened a massive new Test and Technology Centre at Immendingen. Seems like a good enough excuse to us, so the three-pointed star has brought a few old cars along to christen the new tarmac. It's why there's a picture of a C140 series CL500 in a somewhat unbecoming, but enjoyable slide. Why that car? Because it was the first in production to feature ESP - it being off for the sideways picture, otherwise its line would be a little bit less dramatic.
There's a W168 model A-Class here, too, no elks, but some cones to demonstrate that ESP is very good thing when it comes to small, tall hatchbacks and evasive manoeuvres. I know, because I tried it. All manner of S-Classes are here, from the glorious W116 450 SEL with its 6.9-litre V8 engine, and not forgetting the ABS - there's a sticker on its flanks to remind you - to the very latest model. Some W124 and C124 E-Classes, a R129 SL500 with Brake Assist Plus (and a pop-up rollover bar) as well as a 190 E 2.5-16 Evolution II, it having racing ABS, are littered around, some to play in others merely to look at. Sadly, that racer is static, but just gawping at it is worth the journey here on its own.
In all that company you could be forgiven for having missed the people. There's a group of gents, the grey hair demonstrating they're vintage themselves. Every one of them has been involved in the development of Mercedes-Benz's safety systems, and many people globally owe their lives to their engineering skills, determination and vision.
Key among them is Frank-Werner Mohn, Mercedes-Benz's former Head of Advanced Development ESP. It was Mohn who was instrumental in the development of ESP. As a young engineer he put an E-Class in a ditch on a winter test in Sweden. Unlike us lot, who'd fill out an insurance form and laugh it off, he was so embarrassed that he wanted to engineer a way to prevent it happening again. To do so, he came up with the idea of braking individual wheels to help maintain control of the car.
Mohn's surprisingly humble about his involvement, however, citing his managers at Mercedes-Benz, and the people at Bosch, for taking the technology and making it available to all, rather than patenting it and minting it in. "That's the Mercedes-Benz way, he says, safety is in its heart," says Mohn, his infectious enthusiasm for engineering safety into cars clear. He admits developing ESP wouldn't have been possible had it not been for a colleague who found a sensor that'd provide the necessary information on the different axis required. The sensors they initially looked at would have cost more than the car would sell for, but a solution was found in the unlikeliest of places. Early ESP development used the gyroscopic sensors from radio-controlled helicopters.
How many lives it has helped to save is incalculable, after all, as Mohn himself admits the accidents that don't happen aren't recorded. Think about all those times you, friends or family have had a close shave, avoided an incident and driven away. Think about that, then all the people in the world who drive. Such is the curse of engineers they're never happy though, and the safety systems have developed through time, Brake Assist, Brake Assist Plus, Pre-Safe, Blind Spot Assist, Active Lane Keeping Assist, Pedestrian Protection, Night Vision Assist, Collision Prevention Assist and countless other 'intelligent', 'assist' and 'tronics' that come as standard equipment, or optionally on Mercedes-Benz models today.
It's easy to demonstrate the worth of them here, avoiding foam blocks you otherwise slide helplessly into, Brake Assist Plus stopping the A-Class when a dummy of a child steps out into its path. Where it's more tricky for me to see the value is with latest systems, these being arguably as much about convenience as they are about safety.
A drive around town and on the Autobahn in the current A-Class demonstrates this, its Intelligent Drive being the stepping-stone to autonomy. Using its huge array of sensors it doesn't just to react in an emergency situation, but effectively takes control of the car in everyday driving. Much of our route can be driven without doing anything but steering, a couple of nudges of the button on the steering wheel seeing the A-Class follow the car in front, slow down for bends, junctions and speed limits, leaving the driver with little to do apart from watch.
During this there's a point when I ask the new guard of engineers why, and they don't really have an answer other than it's possible. It's a definite turning point for technology from usefully working in the background to help save you from injury, to coming to the forefront to save you the 'hassle' of driving. That's perceived hassle, as I know I'm not alone here in actually enjoying driving. It's not necessarily an advance that I'm comfortable with, then, not just the idea, but the execution, not least because the technology is not quite there, leaving you hovering over the controls in case you're needed to intervene.
In 40 years safety technology has come a very long way indeed, benefitting countless people and demonstrably saving lives. Like that CL500 though, so long as there's an off switch then the future for us car enthusiasts, but as the technology marches apace, hang onto your classics. I'll have that W116 450 SEL 6.9 please, and the R129 SL for the weekend. Safe enough, yet I'm still driving...