40 years of Driver Assistance Systems

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...

P.H. O'meter

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Comments (6) Join the discussion on the forum

  • Motorsport3 01 Oct 2018

    I really liked the C140, still do. The shape of it is just right in my eyes. Not sure about the driving though it is a very heavy car. Was it heavier than the already heavy sedan version?

    Not sure also about the overall experience particularly that now has turned 20+ years old...

  • bristolracer 01 Oct 2018

    Fantastic advancement in safety
    Accidents you walk away from today were trips to the mortuary 40 years ago.

    Bring on the robots, let's do away with all accidents.
    99% of my journeys I'd rather let the computer do the driving, it's the evolution of personal transport.

  • J4CKO 01 Oct 2018

    These systems are a fantastic benefit to safety, I know on here they get called "Electronic nannies" but to be honest so many drivers need a nanny, and it sort of mirrors aviation, a Eurofighter apparently couldn't be flown without its avionics, it would be too twitchy and hard to fly, adding to the pilots workload.

    Its not quite the same but some of the cars today that weigh 2 tonnes plus and have 500 or more bhp could be a bit, of course they could be driven but as speeds rise and cornering at speed is involved, in the wet, even with modern tyres if it goes wrong, it goes wrong very fast.

    Of course we should all drive to the conditions, within our limits and not rely on these systems but sometimes things go awry and I would rather have that in my corner to help out than to rely on my limited skill, as to be honest avoiding a truck that has crossed the central reservation by yanking the steering wheel isnt something I practice.

    Unless you race, drift or take massive liberties on the road, I dont think most of us get that experience of a car sliding or evasive manoeuvrers enough to keep fully drilled all the time and anyway, we cant brake individual wheels and be on high alert all the time and react at that speed. its like so many blokes think they are dead hard but haven't ever been in a fight or trained in anything and have no idea.

    Would be good to have plenty of places to go and try stuff out, but remember this is us as enthusiasts, the average punter has never really experienced or instigated a slide and dont know whether to go for a piss or a haircut.

    I think the number of Russian dashcam videos where cars avoid something then pendulum back the other way and go into a massive spin illustrates how good modern cars are compared to old models like that with no ESP.

    I know some say nobody should have and learn to drive them but the reality is that we arent all driving gods and countless lives have been saved, its a harsh lesson being killed or injured because you got it wrong, and even driving gods get it wrong. Have seen it first hand when a colleague was telling me how he doesn't like ABS and will remove the fuse from his new car when he gets an opportunity, he explaiend how he cadence brakes and blah blah blah, as he pontificated a tractor pulled out and he was too busy pontificating, sees it at the last moment and the ABS totally bails him out, no cadence anything, just blind panic.

    All very well saying what you would do from a computer keyboard, but when things get real, we soon run out of ideas.

  • TooMany2cvs 01 Oct 2018

    Article talks about ESP.
    Article shows lots of pics of 70s S-class with ABS plastered all over it.

    If ABS is "driver assistance", then why's there not a single mention of the Jensen FF? Or Voisin's tests on brake pressure modulation in the 20s?

  • captain_cynic 01 Oct 2018

    J4CKO said:
    These systems are a fantastic benefit to safety, I know on here they get called "Electronic nannies" but to be honest so many drivers need a nanny, and it sort of mirrors aviation, a Eurofighter apparently couldn't be flown without its avionics, it would be too twitchy and hard to fly, adding to the pilots workload.
    Same with the original harrier, was extremely difficult to fly when it was first released, but newer systems have made it easier.

    The thing is, these aren't "electronic nannies", they're devices that make it easier for the driver (or pilot) to direct the vehicle. The vehicle is still dependent on the pilot for direction.

    Electronic nannies are things like lane assist and automatic braking which are not simplifying a complex task that is rarely used like ABS did with pulse braking, rather they are coddling bad driving habits.

    Worse yet you have the affect of risk compensation. As people believe that cars become safer, people start to take more risks. It happened with ABS, a study of taxis in Munich found no difference between taxis equipped with ABS and those that weren't, the report concluded that the drivers were taking more risks. Add to this the fact that most people don't understand the inherent limitations of these systems.

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