60 years of crash tests at Mercedes-Benz


A smashing success story.

This article was originally published in the Daimler blog.

A pile of metal — at first glance, this is all that’s left over when our developers are done conducting a crash test. Despite this, they continue to drive our cars against walls again and again. What was a milestone in vehicle safety back in 1959 has become a standard procedure for the development experts. Much has happened since the first systematic crash tests were performed 60 years ago. Read on to find out more.

10 min reading time

by Melanie Spremberg, Editor
published on September 25, 2019

Loud collisions can be heard several times a day at the Technology Center for Vehicle Safety (TFS) in Sindelfingen. About 1,000 times a year, whenever the colleagues at the TFS smash a vehicle into a wall or against another automobile. Deliberately? Yes. Not because they love to wreck cars, but in order to improve safety. That’s because the TFS building isn’t just the site for the crash tests that are required by law or rating institutes, but also for the company’s own vehicle safety tests.

Here, you can find the remains of practically every vehicle that Daimler has to offer — no matter whether it’s a car, a truck, or a bus. But how does a crash test proceed? And how were these tests conducted 60 years ago when Daimler became the world’s first automaker to introduce systematic crash testing? I wanted to find out, so I paid the Technology Center for Vehicle Safety in Sindelfingen a visit.

The vast halls of vehicle safety

The Technology Center for Vehicle Safety has a gross floor area of 55,000 square meters and a 8,100-square-meter testing hall. When I enter the vast halls, I encounter cutting-edge technology, huge lamps, and gigantic concrete structures.

To conduct the tests, the team uses big concrete crash blocks that have a variety of different superstructures that the developers call “crash barriers.” These barriers can be rigid or deformable. In the latter case, blue-painted aluminum honeycombs simulate the front end of another vehicle.

“Our five crash blocks weigh between 100 and 500 tons,” says developer Matthias Struck, who is responsible for communications at the Product Analysis and Accident Reconstruction department. “We use the heaviest block to conduct crash tests with trucks, for example,” he says while guiding me through the halls of the Technology Center for Vehicle Safety. We are surrounded by ultra-modern lamps that make the place look like an oversized photo studio.

And that’s what it basically is anyway. “During a crash test, we shoot 1,000 pictures per second. It enables us to reconstruct every millisecond of the event later on. That’s why we need all that light,” says Struck. The systems are all programmed to be fully automatic. The systems proceed to the crash position that is entered into the computer. “It makes the lamps move automatically to the crash block,” says Struck. I feel like I’m on the set of a science fiction film.

The first crash test at Mercedes-Benz

Not much technology or other equipment was used during the first crash test at Mercedes-Benz, which occurred pretty much to the day 60 years ago. It nonetheless marked yet another time that automotive history was made here in Sindelfingen.

On September 10, 1959, a Mercedes-Benz 190 with a “tail fin body” collided against a 17-ton obstacle. The doors on the driver’s side had been removed before the test so that the motions of the mannequin that represented the driver could be filmed. The other “passengers” consisted of three bags full of sand.

…and BUMM did it: Without doors – and of course without real passengers – but with historical effect, a Mercedes-Benz 190 type laid the foundation for today’s vehicle safety on September 10, 1959.
…and BUMM did it: Without doors – and of course without real passengers – but with historical effect, a Mercedes-Benz 190 type laid the foundation for today’s vehicle safety on September 10, 1959.

But how was the Mercedes-Benz 190 of this first crash test set into motion, given that a mannequin from a nearby department store was sitting at the steering wheel? It was done with the help of a winch that was actually made for launching gliders. The cable was separated from the vehicle right before the crash, so that a force from the cable would not affect the actual collision. In later tests, the developers sometimes used a second car that pushed the test vehicle forward from behind. Nobody recorded the mannequin’s condition after the crash test.

“We should build a steam rocket!”

This first test was followed by more frontal collisions against a rigid obstacle. The next stage of development came in 1962 when somebody had the mind-blowing idea of conducting a crash test with a rocket engine, according to Gerhard Heidbrink, who works in the archives of Mercedes-Benz Classic.

In other words, Heidbrink is a real expert on the history of the brand with the star. “In 1962 the developers further standardized the propulsion of the test vehicle by employing a kind of hot-water rocket as the drive system,” he says. Although this may sound rather complicated, it actually wasn’t.

“They simply filled water into a boiler and heated it to 260 degrees Celsius in order to generate an enormous amount of pressure. As soon as they opened the valve, the superheated water vapor shot out through a nozzle,” explains Heidbrink. “The whole thing acted like a rocket.” As soon as the vehicle achieved the right speed, it was disconnected and the rocket was braked.

Mercedes-Benz has continuously refined its methods since then. Whereas the developers put mannequins and sandbags into the seats during the first crash tests in Sindelfingen, they began to use crash test dummies in 1968. These devices contained special measurement technology that recorded the forces which acted on the dummies during a collision. They still so today, although nowadays they use about 200 sensors. The first dummies only contained a handful of sensors and the results were correspondingly less precise.

In the dummy lab: dolls full of technology

“Hold that for a moment,” says Struck, bringing me back to the present. He puts a toddler-size dummy into my hands. I almost drop it. “It’s really heavy,” I exclaim. I didn’t expect it to weigh so much. “It’s as heavy as a real child of that size,” says Struck with a grin. I then realize that I’ve never carried a child in my arms.

We are in the dummy lab, where employees prepare the sensitive crash pilots for their next collisions. “We have about 120 dummies. All of them are especially designed for specific crash situations. We have dummies for frontal, side, and rear collisions,” says Struck.

The various types of dummy are specified by law. The clothing they wear is also precisely regulated. Some dummies wear a kind of yellow wetsuit, for example. Why is that? “Along with other details, this clothing is specified so that the conditions are uniform at all crash testing facilities worldwide and the results comparable,” explains Struck.

Dummies exist in every imaginable size, ranging from newborns to adults. The adult dummies are also available in a variety of sizes. “Here’s the five-percent woman, for example,” says Struck. Statistically speaking, only five percent of all women worldwide are shorter or lighter than this dummy for frontal collisions.

“Like the other dummies, this one is a standard feature of our tests because we naturally have to take different body sizes and seat positions into account. This is the only way we can ensure the safety of all vehicle occupants worldwide.” The benefits of these tests are quite noticeable. “We now have far fewer traffic fatalities than in the past despite a great rise in traffic density.”

Sixty years of crash testing — but are we also prepared for the next 60 years?

Such technology was still unthinkable in the early years of crash testing, when the tests were still conducted in the open air as a matter of course. “The first crash hall wasn’t built until 1973,” says Heidbrink. “It made everything much more systematic and professional, besides ensuring the tests were unaffected by the weather.”

A veritable quantum leap was achieved in late 2016, when the new building of today’s Technology Center for Vehicle Safety was inaugurated. The new facility didn’t just have a new name, the building was much larger than the former one and it had four highly versatile crash lanes that ended in a large unsupported angular area. Since then, crash tests can also be made with two simultaneously moving vehicles that collide with one another with high precision. This enables typical accidents at intersections to be re-enacted, for example.

The new facility also has a higher testing capacity than the old one. In 2012, the experts managed to conduct a maximum of 465 crash tests a year in the old hall. “By contrast, the number of tests with complete vehicles is nearing 1,000 in the new halls,” says Struck.

The modernization project that ended with the completion of today’s Technology Center for Vehicle Safety was initiated by Norbert Schaub. He heads Daimler’s testing department for passive safety and vehicle functions and is very proud of the things that the technology center can now do.

“The constellation of tests that are conducted here at the TFS meet the requirements of all of the legal regulations and safety ratings worldwide. In addition, it makes a number of Mercedes-specific tests that result from the findings of our own accident research. Many people don’t know that,” he says. “Even before the first crash test is made, a lot of work goes into computing a vehicle’s design.”

Vehicle safety is changing at Mercedes-Benz due to the transformation of mobility

A lot has happened over the past six decades. Moreover, vehicle safety will continue to evolve in the coming decades. The transformation of mobility is also changing the requirements that the Technology Center for Vehicle Safety has to meet. During the construction of the new facility, the team therefore tried to look into the future in order to take into account the requirements that crash tests might have to meet in the next 40 years, according to today’s estimations.

Among other things, the team has made all of the preparations for crashing vehicles equipped with alternative drive systems. An example of this is the EQC (Mercedes-Benz EQC 400: combined power consumption: 21.3–20.2 kWh/100 km; combined CO2 emissions: 0 g/km*):

“We most recently worked on the Experimental Safety Vehicle (ESF) 2019,” explains Schaub. “The ESF 2019 provides a safety concept for a vehicle that can either operate autonomously or be driven by a human being.” One of the special features of the ESF 2019 is that the steering wheel and pedals are retractable in order to increase comfort during autonomous operation.

The example of the driver’s airbag clearly shows that such developments will also require the safety systems to be completely overhauled. If the steering wheel is positioned farther away from the driver, the associated airbag has to be relocated. Instead of being incorporated into the steering wheel, it will be located in the dashboard, for example, and will then expand over the steering wheel.

We admit, this has little to do with the early days of vehicle safety. But that is a good thing. After all, the safety innovations of recent decades have made a decisive contribution to making motorized road traffic safer today than ever before. Countless crash tests and thousands of accident simulations and trials have made this progress possible. A smashing success story!

Melanie Spremberg

Melanie Spremberg is Communications Manager in the Automotive Industry. In 2019 and 2020, Melanie worked in internal and external corporate communications at the Daimler Group. During that time, she – among other topics – wrote about crash tests, occupational safety and in-car gaming.

More about the author