Safety research ahead of series production: 50 years of the Mercedes-Benz ESF 05

Safety research ahead of series production: 50 years of the Mercedes-Benz ESF 05

Oct 21, 2021
Stuttgart
  • ESF 05 Experimental Safety Vehicle based on the medium-size W 114 model series
  • Presented in Sindelfingen in October 1971
  • Pioneered the airbag and ABS many years before their series introduction

Stuttgart. Time and again, Mercedes-Benz sets standards in automotive safety. As early as the 1970s, the brand built more than 30 test vehicles as part of the ESF programme of “Experimental-Sicherheits-Fahrzeuge” (Experimental Safety Vehicles, ESVs) to research into future safety systems, and 50 years ago the Mercedes-Benz ESF 05 safety vehicle was presented to the public as the first vehicle in this series. Since then further Mercedes-Benz ESVs have followed, most recently the ESF 2019 with a focus on electric and autonomous driving.

The ESF 05 was presented as part of the 2nd ESV Conference held in Sindelfingen from 26 to 29 October 1971. The vehicle was based on the medium-size W 114 (“Stroke/8”) series. The ESF 05 anticipated numerous innovations for active and passive safety, some of which would not reach production maturity until years later. They included the ABS anti-lock braking system, the airbag and the seat belt tensioner.

Taking passive safety as an example, effective occupant protection is always a work in progress. At present, engineers are working on innovative safety concepts for new interior designs, amongst other things. How, for example, are the occupants of autonomously driving cars to be protected when they use swivelling chairs, sit at right angles to the direction of travel or even assume reclining positions? And how can injuries to pedestrians and cyclists be further reduced when they collide with a vehicle, as in many cities their paths increasingly cross those of cars?

Safety became increasingly important

In the mid-1960s, the number of road traffic accidents rose rapidly with increasing motorisation. A sad record was set in 1970: 19,193 people lost their lives on West German roads alone. There was a similar development in other countries, which was already foreseeable in the years before. In 1968, by way of response, the US Department of Transportation (DOT) launched a programme to develop experimental safety vehicles. This gave rise to the “Technical Conference on the Enhanced Safety of Vehicles”, which has been taking place since 1970.

The American government wanted to put this programme on an international footing, so the “European Enhanced Vehicle-safety Committee” (EEVC) was also founded in 1970. As a pioneer in the field of passive safety, Mercedes-Benz supported the new organisations from the very beginning. The requirements for ESF vehicles (ESVs) were defined in 1970. They included front and rear impact with a fixed obstacle at 80 km/h, and side impact with a pole at 20 km/h. The vehicles were supposed to withstand minor accidents at speeds of up to 16 km/h without permanent deformation at the front and rear. An automatic seat belt system was also envisioned.

Safety first with the ESF 05 Experimental Safety Vehicle

At this point, Mercedes-Benz had long been committed to safety. For the passenger cars of the ESF programme, the Mercedes-Benz brand could therefore draw on a wealth of experience. The ESF 05 was equipped with numerous special features: in addition to self-fitting three-point seat belts, it had several airbags. These were located in front of the driver and front passenger, and also in the backrests of the front seats where they protected the rear passengers.

Measures were also implemented to meet front and rear impact requirements: the bodyshell structure of the research vehicle was reinforced at the front and sides. It also had a wheelbase extended by 100 millimetres, a front end extended by 370 millimetres, an experimental V6 engine to gain space for deformations, a dashboard with an impact-absorbing sheet metal element in the front passenger area and polyurethane foam padding in numerous impact areas.

In the doors, the front quarter-lights were eliminated and power windows made window winders in the doors superfluous. The headlamps were equipped with range control and a washer system, and the windscreen and rear window were of laminated glass. And finally, the ESF 05 was equipped with ABS. The overall length increased by 655 millimetres to 5,349 millimetres compared to the standard saloon, and the kerb weight increased by 655 kilograms to 2,060 kilograms.

Continuation of the ESF programme

Mercedes-Benz developed a total of 35 vehicles within the ESF programme, and initially presented four of them to the public between 1971 and 1974. After the ESF 05, the first of these was the ESF 13, a stylistic further development of the ESF 05, which was presented in Washington in June 1972 on the occasion of the 3rd ESV Conference. The ESF 22 was based on the 116-series S-Class, and was presented in March 1973 during the 4th ESV Conference in Kyoto. It can now be seen in the Mercedes-Benz Museum. At the 5th ESV Conference, the brand presented a further modified S-Class of the same model series.

A look at more recent times: As a continuous pacemaker in the field of safety, the brand put the spotlight on the ESF 2009 based on the 221-series S-Class at the 21st ESV Conference in Stuttgart in June 2009. Or take the ESF 2019: like all vehicles in this programme, which has now been running for 50 years, this once again addresses trends that point far into the future. The focus here is on the safety of electric drive systems and batteries in the event of accidents, and also on occupant protection during fully autonomous driving. More and more sophisticated assistance systems are helping to prevent collisions. Research and development work on vehicle safety is an ongoing process. For example, the preparations for the 27th ESV Conference in Yokohama in April 2023 are already in full swing.

With their safety innovations, vehicles such as the Mercedes-Benz ESF 05 have played their part in drastically reducing the number of fatalities in road traffic for 50 years. Taking another look at Germany, in 2020 the number of fatalities was 2,719 – for the whole of today’s federal territory, with the eastern and western German states taken together. This is a huge improvement – with a simultaneous, significant increase in miles travelled on the roads.

Mercedes-Benz ESF 05 Experimental Safety Vehicle. Presented at the 2nd ESV Conference in Sindelfingen from 26 to 29 October 1971. Photo from 1971. (Photo index number in the Mercedes-Benz Classic archives: 71459-10)
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Mercedes-Benz ESF 05 Experimental Safety Vehicle. Presented at the 2nd ESV Conference in Sindelfingen from 26 to 29 October 1971. Photo from 1971. (Photo index number in the Mercedes-Benz Classic archives: 71459-31)
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Mercedes-Benz ESF 05 Experimental Safety Vehicle. Presented at the 2nd ESV Conference in Sindelfingen from 26 to 29 October 1971. (Photo index number in the Mercedes-Benz Classic archives: 71459-9)
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Mercedes-Benz ESF 05 Experimental Safety Vehicle. View into the cockpit. Amongst other features, the car had a passive seat belt system, airbags, additional impact protection for the driver and front passenger, extremely robust seats with integrated head and shoulder support (side impact), an impact absorber and recessed dashboard, and glare-free instruments. Symbols identified all the controls. The doors were thickly padded, the exterior mirror adjustable from the inside. The ESF 05 was presented at the 2nd ESV Conference in Sindelfingen from 26 to 29 October 1971. Photo from 1971. (Photo index number in the Mercedes-Benz Classic archives: 71459-42)
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Mercedes-Benz ESF 05 Experimental Safety Vehicle. Amongst other features, it included a driver-centred cockpit and numerous foam-covered interior elements. Presented at the 2nd ESV Conference in Sindelfingen from 26 to 29 October 1971. Photo from 1971. (Photo index number in the Mercedes-Benz Classic archives: 71459-56)
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Mercedes-Benz ESF 05 Experimental Safety Vehicle. Presented at the 2nd ESV Conference in Sindelfingen from 26 to 29 October 1971. Photo from 1971. (Photo index number in the Mercedes-Benz Classic archives: 7145904)
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Mercedes-Benz ESF 05 Experimental Safety Vehicle. Presented at the 2nd ESV Conference in Sindelfingen from 26 to 29 October 1971. Photo from 1971. (Photo index number in the Mercedes-Benz Classic archives: 7145932)
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Crash test with an ESF 05 Experimental Safety Vehicle based on the 114 model series. Mercedes-Benz built 35 experimental safety vehicles in the 1970s. Many of their innovations were incorporated into later production vehicles. (Photo index number in the Mercedes-Benz Classic archives: 71209-13)
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