Mercedes tests remote-control cars

Mercedes-Benz has developed the world’s most expensive remote-controlled cars. No, they are not playthings for mega-millionaires; they are research tools that are designed to prove that an upcoming technology works every time it is called upon, and without exception. As Dr. Ralf Herrwich says, “You can only begin to develop a new technology if you have the ability to test it and verify its effectiveness.”

The remote cars accomplish two important things. First, the robotics that drive the S-and E-Class cars around an enormous skid pad can repeat the assigned tests time and again with unerring accuracy. For example, the cars can scribe a complex double figure eight while repeating the sequence, never deviating by more than two centimetres lap after lap. The system can also stop the vehicle within three centimetres repeatedly because the brake pedal application is exactly the same every time. When proving a new technology, its ability to work repeatability and predictably is paramount.

Second, the robotic drivers never complain about the monotony of the testing, nor do they get tired or demand danger pay. On a more serious note, the remote-controlled cars, each of which is controlled by a computer that has multiple fail-safe features built into the programming, can conduct near-miss manoeuvres without ever putting a human tester at risk.

The system can also control up to five vehicles at one time, and it takes about four hours to install the robotics in a new vehicle. Interestingly, a live driver can operate one of the remote-control vehicles. The operator simply sits behind a video game controller — the steering wheel and pedals being from an arcade game.

For the demonstration, Mercedes-Benz set up a number of driving exercises to prove the accuracy of the robotic drivers. The stopping test saw an SClass glide in and stop a couple of centimetres from a pylon several times. The S-Class was then joined by an E-Class. The two cars then embarked on a complex ballet, where one would cut the other off to test the blind spot warning device among other safety systems.

The final test ran the two cars through a simulated intersection. The first car, travelling at 70 kilometres an hour, narrowly missed the second travelling at the same speed. The margin of error was all but non-existent. With the cars travelling at 70 km/h (or 20 metres per second), a mere 100 milliseconds of miscalculation would result in a collision.

Other tests include jumping an S-Class over a ramp at 70 km/h to verify that the air bags do not deploy. If a car jumped a curb and the bags deployed, they would hinder the driver’s ability to control the car and would be useless in the event of a secondary impact — when the out-of-control car careens into a tree, post or house.

The amusing part of the day occurred when a public relations representative was shown the video of Volvo’s recent mishap for the first time. The Volvo S60’s Collision Warning with Auto Brake failed to stop the vehicle as planned. Rather, it slammed into the back of a truck in one almighty oops. The wry smile came from someone who could sympathize with the poor PR woman who had to put a positive spin on abject failure.

Mercedes is also working on some pretty far-out technologies, some of which are not destined to reach the road for 10 or more years. Two of the futuristic technologies stood out in particular.

The first is the so-called “braking air bag.” The premise is simple: Fire an air bag that’s mounted to the vehicle’s front subframe and use it to ramp up the braking effort milliseconds before an unavoidable impact. It sounds far-fetched, but it works. The secret lies in the fact that the lower side of the air bag is covered with an ultrahigh-friction rubber. According to Mercedes, the interaction between the bag’s rubber surface and the road doubles the car’s stopping power immediately prior to the collision. Reducing the impact speed, even by three or four kilometres an hour, makes a dramatic difference to the impact forces and the rider’s risk of serious injury.

The second intriguing technology replaces the conventional headlight with a bank of LEDs. Rather than forming a uniform light pattern, the LED’s light form is pixilated (essentially, a series of illuminated squares form the beam’s pattern). At night, the pixilated lighting can be used to warn the driver of an impending problem. Using the active cruise’s radar and an infrared camera, the system “looks” for a potential problem — a pedestrian that is beyond the illumination range of the headlights. When the radar and infrared camera identify a potential risk, the headlights flash a block of the light pixels. This action not only alerts the driver to the risk, the position of the flashing pixels draws the driver’s eyes to the appropriate area. Now, the pedestrian does not come as a surprise.

Forward thinking like this is what has led to many of the best safety advances — ABS, ESP and air bags being prime examples. Ensuring that these complex systems work properly and as designed before being released to the end user reduces the likelihood of things going wrong.

Photograph by: Handout photo, National Post