When it comes to technology, today's best is tomorrow's second best. As a result, a lot of car manufacturers spend a large percentage of their time and resources just trying to stay ahead of the curve. Of course, it helps if you drew the curve in the first place. Carl Benz filed an application for a patent on his three-wheeled motorcar on January 29, 1886. At the same time, Gottlieb Daimler was busy developing the first four-wheeled motorcar. Working independently of each other, the two founders of today's Daimler AG laid the foundation of the globally successful Mercedes-Benz line, setting a standard of innovation that's a benchmark for all automobile manufacturers.
Over 80,000 Patent Applications
Mercedes-Benz's claim to technological leadership is backed by the more than 80,000 patent applications filed since Benz unveiled his "Patent-Motorwagen" and Daimler introduced his "motorized carriage." But being ahead of the times can be as bad as being behind them, and it looked at first as if Benz and Daimler had answered the question no one had asked. Critics scoffed at their inventions, predicting they had "no future," before hitching up their horses and heading for the barn. But the two innovators persisted, eventually perfecting the machine that would redefine transportation and evolve into a significant component of the world's economy.
The Mercedes 35 hp, introduced in February of 1900, was the prototype of all modern passenger cars, and established a fundamentally new vehicle architecture that is still with us today. Abandoning the long-legged motor-carriage design, the 35 hp had a long wheelbase, a wide track, a low center of gravity, and an angled steering column. Other features included a honeycomb radiator organically integrated into the front end, solving the common problem of how to cool the engine, and also establishing the brand's distinctive mark.
The four-cylinder engine's light alloy crankcase was positioned low in the frame, and its exhaust valves were controlled by a camshaft. The 35 hp was the first vehicle to carry the Mercedes name, and it inspired other manufacturers to adopt its unique design features.
In the coming years Mercedes-Benz continued to push the boundaries of automotive technology further outward. In 1951 it patented a rigid passenger compartment with crumple zones, which went into the 220 S and 220 SE models in 1959.
Crumple Zones, Three-Box Design, and Sports Car History
In 1953 Mercedes-Benz stepped into the age of modernity with its 180 model. Characterized by its "three box" design-the boxes being the front end, passenger compartment and luggage compartment-the 180's unitary structure exhibited not only increased stability and crashworthiness, it was also more modern in appearance, and offered a more roomy interior, a lower drag coefficient, and reduced wind noise.
The 300 SL gull-wing is a true classic, and was voted Sports Car of the Century by an international jury of automotive experts. It was the first use of direct gasoline injection in a production model with a four-stroke engine and the first Mercedes-Benz road vehicle to sport a horizontal air-inlet opening with the star in the middle, a design that would become the hallmark of all future SL touring sports cars.
Antilock Brakes, Electronic Stability, and Laser Sensors
A significant portion of Mercedes-Benz's research has gone toward making its cars safer. Anti-lock braking was introduced in 1978 in the Series 116 S-Class, while the airbag was launched in 1981 in the Series 126 S-Class. Mercedes-Benz brought out the ESP electronic stability program in 1995 in the Series 140 S-Class Coupe, before gradually extending it to all model series.
More than a century after the 35 hp established the parameters of the cars of today, Mercedes-Benz is developing the technologies that will become part of the cars of tomorrow. In 2007, Mercedes-Benz unveiled the PRE-SCAN chassis in the F 700 research vehicle. Using laser sensors in the headlights as forward-looking "eyes," the system registers road conditions in advance, and compensates for bumps and potholes more effectively than any other chassis.
Magic Body Control Chassis
Then, in autumn of 2010, Mercedes-Benz topped its PRE-SCAN chassis with the Magic Body Control chassis, which looks at the road ahead through a stereo camera mounted on the windscreen above the rear-view mirror. Observing the road conditions from two different perspectives, the system can recognize uneven road surfaces in great detail and relay that information to the Active Body Control chassis, which adjusts the forces at each wheel separately.
In the automotive industry, staying in place is the same as falling behind, which is why Mercedes-Benz is constantly looking at the horizon and trying to see what lies beyond. So much progress has been made in the fields of energy efficiency, exhaust-gas after-treatment, and fuel-cell and battery technology that over half the 2070 patent applications filed last year relate to "green" technologies.
It's been 125 years since Carl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler were dismissed as inventors of a machine with no future, but if history has taught us anything, it's that the future is what you make of it. By continuing to invest in the refinement of the automobile through research and innovative technology, Mercedes-Benz is not ensuring its own future, it's also leading the way for the automotive industry of tomorrow.