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Schöneburg's Cat
Dr. Rodolfo Schöneburg just won the coveted Pathfinder Award. You say who? What?. Sarah Butzen elucidates.
Posted April 16, 2013
The Automotive Safety Council recently gave out its Pathfinder Award to Dr. Rodolfo Schöneburg, of Mercedes-Benz. If you missed it, don't feel too bad; it followed close on the heels of the Oscars, when we all had award fatigue, and to be honest the ASC doesn't do much to boost the red-carpet element of the whole thing. I mean, if you showed up hoping to be wowed by the outfits and maybe get a "Worst-Dressed Couples of the Automotive Safety Council 52nd Annual General Membership Meeting" list out of it, you would have gone home unsatisfied.

If you were interested in automotive safety, however, you'd have had plenty to keep you happy. Schöneburg, who's the Director of Safety and Durability Engineering for Mercedes, got this award in recognition of his work on Mercedes' "Pre-Safe" system, which used to be an option but is now standard in all Mercedes models. And though its name sounds vaguely Orwellian – conjuring as it does the image of what it might mean to be "post-safe"—it's based on some pretty advanced ideas about automotive safety.

Specifically, Schöneburg is trying to transcend the traditional division between "passive safety," or trying to reduce or mitigate the consequences of car accidents, and "active safety," or trying to avoid accidents. This might not sound revolutionary, until you remember that back in the early 2000s, when this system was first conceived, many SUVs were promoted as being intrinsically safer on the basis of size alone. When you have an accident, the argument went, it's better to be surrounded by a big pile of metal than in a medium-sized or small one. Never mind that most of these SUVs were constructed on truck chassis and had abysmal maneuverability—which can come in handy when you're trying to avoid having the accident in the first place.

The inspiration for the system apparently came when Karl-Heinz Baumann, one of Mercedes' safety engineers, was looking through his daughter's biology textbook and saw some images of a cat falling. The images showed how a cat twists, turns, and stretches itself while falling to get itself into the best possible position for landing. Baumann thought, what if a car could do this – anticipate an impact and get the occupants into the safest possible position?

Schöneburg, Baumann, and the rest of the safety engineering team at Mercedes then followed up by asking: What if the car could do this using the same system it uses to try to avoid the accidents? And what if this system's accident mitigation elements would only kick in if a crash was imminent? SUVs tout enhanced safety from their sheer size and mass, but that means there's a lot of weight that has to be dragged around all the time – not just when you might need it to cushion you from impact. The Mercedes team wanted something that wouldn't be a driving disadvantage in the event that you didn't have the accident—and in fact would simultaneously be helping you avoid the accident.

The result was the Pre-Safe system (which, it turns out, stands for "preventive safety," so I guess that's not so Orwellian, but it still gives me the willies). It's an integrated system of warnings and automatic responses that are intended to both avoid/lessen the severity of a car accident, and to mitigate the consequences for the people inside. First, it uses cameras to detect the presence of something in the car's path, and sensors to pick up cues from the driver's behavior (braking, steering) that accident avoidance may already be underway. It also receives signals from the car's motion to detect the possibility of skids and rollovers.

The system sends visual and audio warnings to the driver, and provides varying levels of steering and braking assistance. The steering assistance function will kick in to try to compensate for any oversteering or understeering that the driver may be doing. The Brake Assist function may provide extra stopping power to the driver's braking or, if the Pre-Safe system detects that a crash is imminent, it will engage the Brake Assist to slow down the car as much as possible before impact.

It doesn't stop there, though. If it thinks—or I guess "calculates" might be the more appropriate term—that a crash is unavoidable, it closes the sunroof and windows, puts all seats upright (which is apparently optimal for a crash), and tightens the seat belts so the occupants are held closer to their seats and have less room to be thrown forward against the belts. It even inflates various cushioning bolsters in the seat cushions and headrests. This system has been shown to reduce stress on occupants' necks by 40 percent, and stress on their heads by about 30 percent.

The system even has post-crash functions: the seatbelts extend upwards to make it easier for rescue personnel to get people out of the car, the interior lights go on, the steering wheel moves up and out of the way, and the windows go down. (Assuming, of course, that these systems haven't been damaged by the crash.)

It sounds like, with systems like these (which Mercedes will soon be licensing to other automakers), the car will be doing pretty much all it can to avoid and mitigate accidents. Now, if we could just do something about the drivers.
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