For over 20 years, Professor Rodolfo Schöneburg has been responsible for the successful development of integral vehicle safety at Mercedes-Benz. On the occasion of Road Safety Day on 19 June, we spoke with the head of the Centre for Safety, Durability and Corrosion Protection about the limits of physics, the in-fluence of electric mobility on road safety and his own personal future.
Mr Schöneburg, when safety is your profession, are you a cautious person or do you deliberately test the limits of physics?
To be honest, I am rather a cautious person. I'm not the one doing free climbing or anything like that. On the other hand, I love speeds and open-top driving. I like to use my motorbike and enjoy the freedoms that come with it. But since I know that riding a motorbike is not very safe, without a crumple zone and airbags I tend to glide along at a leisurely pace.
When most people think of sustainability, they think of environmental protection or conservation of resources. What does safety have to do with sustainability?
For me, sustainability and safety are unseparably connected. Sustainability in the area of vehicle safety for me means enabling safe and individual mobility without endangering oneself and other road users. Our guiding principle is: accident-free driving. We have been examining real-life accidents for over 50 years and try to prevent accidents - that's what we mean by active safety - or at least reduce the consequences of accidents - passive safety. We are constantly driving this forward through innovation.
Will we still need active and passive driving safety systems if we are automated in the future?
In principle, the idea is correct: without accidents, we would no longer need airbags, for example. And increasing automation will help to prevent accidents further. However, I am convinced that accident protection systems will continue to be used in our vehicles for decades to come. Partly because we will be moving in mixed traffic in the future. There will be vehicles that are automated and others that are not.
Physics still apply for automated vehicles and will bring new challenges. For example, when occupants recline or half-recline to watch a film while they no longer have to attend to the driving task, previous restraint systems reach their limits. This means that in some cases we need completely new passive safety systems for these vehicles in order to cope with the more complex interior situations.
A brief review: You have shaped vehicle safety at Daimler for more than 20 years as a centre manager. What has happened here in terms of safety over the last 20 years?
Safety on the roads has improved considerably since then. One indicator of this is the lower number of fatalities in German road traffic, despite more vehicles and significantly greater distances driven. Internationally, safety requirements and laws on vehicle safety have also increased significantly.
What safety milestones have been achieved in the current S-Class?
In the new S-Class, we are very proud of many innovations that serve vehicle safety, take the rear seat as an example. The rear airbag - a world first - in conjunction with the belt airbag, can significantly reduce occupants' head and chest loads in the rear of the vehicle. Two innovations that we have already shown in the ESF 2019 and have now been able to implement in the new S-Class. This means that up to 18 airbags are installed in this vehicle, including a new centre airbag between the driver and front passenger.
What influence will electric mobility have on traffic safety?
First of all, traffic safety is not a question of the powertrain for us. Our electric vehicles are at least as safe as combustion or hybrid vehicles. In addition, we have developed a seven-stage safety concept for electric vehicles that ensures the safety of occupants and first responders even in the event of serious accidents. The lithium-ion battery is thus kept free from deformation by means of appropriate protective zones and structural concepts. The switch to electric mobility can have another indirect benefit for traffic safety. Fleet rejuvenation brings with it the introduction of modern assistance and safety systems. And one thing is clear: Modern cars are safer than old cars.
In addition to vehicle safety development, your name is also synonymous with other road safety initiatives. SAFE ROADS and MobileKids are just two examples. Tell us about them.
With SAFE ROADS, we are making a targeted contribution to improving the behaviour of road users in countries with a high number of road casualties through education. In India, for example, 17 people die on the streets every hour, more than anywhere else in the world ¹. The concept has been so successful in India that we have already expanded it to China. SAFE ROADS is a great example of sustainability in road safety for me. That is also why we run this programme as a CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) initiative, i.e. with a charitable background.
MobileKids is a Daimler initiative
Prof. Schöneburg, after 22 years in vehicle safety at Daimler, a new phase of your life is about to begin. Will you remain faithful to researching safe driving after your professional career or do you prefer gardening from now on?
Forty years of professional experience and 22 of them at Mercedes-Benz - that certainly won't stop overnight. I have several ideas to continue working on safety in the future. On the one hand, my teaching commitment at the university in Dresden and my research ought to continue. For example, I would like to reissue and update the book "Integral Safety of Motor Vehicles" with some safety experts. On the other hand, I would like to continue helping our company where I can and also stay for some time to come with the VDI, the Association of German Engineers, where I have been very active for years, so that I can continue to provide ideas for vehicle safety.
What were the personal highlights for you during your time at Daimler AG?
How much time do I have? It's been a long time, there have been some very outstanding issues and we have already talked about many of them. But what speaks overall for the standards and culture at Daimler is that for 20 years I have presented the functional strategy for vehicle safety to the Board of Management once a year and had it confirmed. I have had the pleasure of meeting a few board members, but all of them had the issue of safety deeply enshrined in them. No cost efficiency programme has ever challenged this core value of our brand.
Top results in the various safety ratings, such as five stars in Euro-NCAP, which we always have as a goal, were and are our standard. The way the company and the entire management see vehicle safety is something very special. In addition, the extremely experienced team in the field of safety is a highlight for me every day anew. Only as a team is it conceivable at all that we can be a leader in safety for so long and keep bringing innovations to the market.
In 20 years, the driving licence ... "... will still be necessary - perhaps under somewhat new framework conditions."
For me, the biggest milestone in traffic safety is ... "... the invention of the crumple zone with the stable passenger cell. It made everyone really aware of the issue of safety."
If I didn't work at Daimler, then ... "... I would certainly have chosen an academic career. But if you want to work in vehicle safety in a company, Mercedes-Benz is the ultimate."