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Mercedes unveils its 'safest car ever'

Date: 28 November 2008

Will buyers swap their BMW 5-series for the new safety equipment found on the new Mercedes E-class? John Challen finds out

In a bid to seize a greater share of the prestigious executive sector and grab business from boardroom user-choosers, Mercedes has packed the next generation E-class with a host of safety technology and driver aids it hopes will appeal to the increasingly risk-savvy fleet manager.

According to official data from the German government, around 25% of all accidents are caused by driver tiredness. It's this startling statistic - along with the fact that Mercedes sold around 6800 E-class to fleets while its BMW 5-series and Audi A6 rivals shifted 11,000 units each - that has prompted Merc to re-assess the safety options on its cars.

First to benefit will be the new E-class, which debuts in March 2009. Mercedes says it will be the safest production car it has ever made, a claim backed up by a raft of new and upgraded systems that will grace the E-class, and, shortly afterwards, the new S-class.

Attention Assist is one of the new systems to debut on the 5-series rival, and Mercedes promises that it will be available on all its models within three years. The technology monitors more than 70 parameters to detect driver drowsiness and then produces a profile taking into account factors such as speed, time of day, duration of journey, steering behaviour and road conditions. This data is continuously monitored and updated every 40 milliseconds, and when the driver is perceived to not be alert enough to drive, visual and audible warnings are given. Intervention at this point ensures increased safety for driver, passengers and other road users.

Designed for long motorway journeys, Attention Assist is operational between 49.7mph and 111.8mph (80 and 180km/h).

Related to the problems of driver alertness and concentration, Lane Keeping Assist warns drivers when they veer out of their lane. A camera has been mounted on the E-class' windscreen and it identifies lane markings on the road. When the car moves across these markings, a vibration is sent through the steering wheel to subtly warn the driver.

The same camera is used in another debuting technology: Speed Limit Assist. In this instance it identifies speed limit signs on the road and displays the specific speed on the dashboard as the driver passes them. The main advantage may be a cut in accidents, but the system will also cut the risk of being caught speeding.

On the road at night

Driving at night will also be safer in the new E-class thanks largely to two key developments. First is the introduction of Adaptive Highbeam Assist, another camera-based system, which automatically controls the headlamp beam according to the traffic ahead. Provided the car is travelling over 34.2mph (55km/h), data from the camera about the road ahead is transferred to the headlamps, allowing them to be adjusted between different modes. Mercedes says the main advantages come in rural areas, where pedestrians can be seen up 150m earlier than they would be when the lights are working normally. The system also sets high beam as the default mode until an object is detected, at which point light strength is gradually reduced. When the road is deemed clear, the high beam, which offers a range of around 120m in motorway mode, returns.

A second visual aid is an upgraded version of Mercedes' Night Vision, which uses an infrared light to show an image of the road ahead.

The new system identifies and highlights pedestrians, cyclists or obstacles, and displays the whole picture on the dashboard.