DaimlerChrysler may well be struggling to put its house in order but its thirst for research and development - especially at Mercedes - apparently remains undiminished. Jesse Crosse reports.

According to DaimlerChrysler's research and development director, Dr Thomas Weber, the world is facing a crisis. Weber says that by 2050 the global population will have soared to nine billion and will therefore have increased by a factor of three since 1950. Weber also expects the number of vehicles on the roads to have tripled to more than two billion. India is just such an enormous emerging market and China will soon follow. When it does, manufacturers will be at full stretch and the pressure even greater than it is now to find sustainable powertrains which have a low impact on the environment.

A major problem is that of fuel quality. For petrol and diesel engines to move on and make use of advanced catalytic converters removing a much higher proportion of NOx (oxides of nitrogen) from exhaust than they do today, the sulphur content of fuel needs to be no more than 10ppm (ten parts per million). But the majority of people across the planet only have access to fuel containing a massive 3,000 parts per million. Biofuels made from fermented biomass (waste organic material) reduce emissions but the cost is high and the amount of biomass needed to make a significant difference would be immense.

So the pressure is still on to improve petrol and diesel engines as well as finding ways to support drivers who find themselves under increasing pressures due to the sheer volume of traffic. Like most major manufacturers, DaimlerChrysler is researching a range of technologies aimed at improving not just engine design but also active safety systems and telematics.

Obstacle Recognition
Mercedes has been working on electronic methods of spotting pedestrians and other obstacles in one form or another for some time. The current prototype is based on an E-Class Mercedes equipped with two video cameras mounted on the rear view mirror and a boot full of PCs which process the images, software deciding what constitutes an obstacle and what doesn't. Cameras monitor what is happening up to 25 metres in front of the car both on the road and to either side. Specially developed software scans the video images between seven and 15 times a second, attempting to identify different objects such as pedestrians, then calculating where they are moving to and what is the likely risk during the next few seconds. When it's made a decision, the system can not only warn the driver but apply the brakes too.

One of the most difficult problems is to distinguish between a person and say, a piece of roadside furniture. To achieve those skills, the software is fed tens of thousands of examples by engineers accounting for not only what a pedestrian looks like, but also considering shapes, textures and movement as well. Mercedes says the registration of objects now works reliably but that the classification process (identifying what kind of object the car is 'seeing') is still in its infancy. But work has been going on for several years now and as computer processors become more powerful, so the system becomes more able. But whether or not software can ever become complex and reliable enough to decide what constitutes a risk and what doesn't, remains a tough call.

Radar comes closer
Obstacle recognition is a long way off and in reality may prove just too tough a technical challenge to perfect. But the use of short range radar operating on a broadband frequency of 24GHz could improve passive safety in vehicles enormously. The wide bandwidth means the system works at high resolution which improves accuracy and with a sensor mounted on the front of a car, it's possible to spot an impending accident before it actually happens. In reality, that means the car's onboard safety systems can react before an impact instead of having only milliseconds to prepare during the event.

There are plenty of other possible safety applications too, ranging from warning functions to protect from a rear-end collision, to driver assistance during lane-changes or when parking or driving in stop-and-go traffic. Mercedes could have radar-based safety devices in production by 2005, but the problem, as ever, is legislation. In Europe, a frequency needs to be officially allocated so there are no conflicts with other users such as the telecommunications industry. The SARA initiative (Short Range Automotive Radar Allocation) is a working group of vehicle manufacturers and automotive suppliers who are co-operating to get the necessary parameters in place.
 
Close-range radar systems could also play an important part in the 'eSafety' program of the European Commission. Its aim is to slash the number road traffic fatalities by 50 percent by 2010. It's thought that around 88 percent of all rear-end collisions could be avoided or their effect reduced by radar technology alone.

Parking made easy
Not all of Mercedes' advanced research projects cost millions of dollars. Amazingly, a fully automated parking assistant was the idea of two young engineers who were given a free rein to work on the project and came up with a convincingly effective solution in a short timescale.

The Parking Assistant goes well beyond the usual ultrasonic sensors in front and rear bumpers. It actively looks for parking spaces as you cruise along a row of parked cars and when it finds one big enough, prompts the driver to stop the car. If there's more than one option, the driver decides which one he wants to take, then the Parking Assistant reverses the car into the space taking complete control of throttle steering and brakes. In order to do that, a car fitted with the device can only be fitted with an automatic gearbox. The parking process is started by pressing a button and for safety reasons, the button must remain pressed throughout the whole manoeuvre. Braking, applying the park brake or an obstacle appearing will all stop the process. The system uses a laser scanner mounted on the right rear bumper to spot the spaces which may be parallel or at 90 degrees to the road and can park forwards or in reverse.

click the image to enlarge

Natural Propulsion
Natural gas is a clean fuel but difficult to distribute because it is supplied in compressed, rather than liquid form like liquid petroleum gas (LPG). Mercedes' 163bhp CNG (compressed natural gas) research vehicle is called the E 200 NGT, is based on an E 200 Kompressor and runs either on gas or unleaded petrol. The driver decides which but electronics make sure the switch between fuels is seamless. High pressure gas tanks reduce boot space from 540 litres to 400 litres but with a petrol tank holding 65 litres and the gas tanks 18kg of CNG, the range is a useful 1,000km (621 miles), 300km of which is accounted for by the gaseous fuel.

Like the original unit, the engine meets Euro 4 emissions regulations but when using gas, CO2 is reduced by 20 percent compared to petrol. And depending on which part of the world you live in, there are big savings to be made too. In Germany, for instance, it costs half as much to make a journey using natural gas instead of petrol. The E 200 NGT is on sale there now and customer deliveries have been underway since April of this year.

Wake up call - the Lane Assistant
So far, Lane Assistant  is only available on Mercedes Actros trucks but it serves as a good indication of what could be achieved with cars as well. The Lane Assistant uses a camera fitted behind the windscreen, monitoring the road immediately ahead. Software evaluates the video images, continually deciding whether the truck is staying in lane. If the lane identification system decides it isn't and the driver does not react within a certain time, the system sounds an acoustic alarm. If the truck veers left, the signal comes from the left-hand cab speaker and if it veers to the right, the sound comes from the right-hand speaker. Research shows that when drivers hear these signals, the reaction is to counter steer without delay. 5,000 Mercedes-Benz Actros trucks are equipped with Lane Assis-tants already but there is as yet, no sign of it appearing on Mercedes cars. In Japan, the Honda has an optional lane keeping system on sale in the Inspire already which actively steers the car back on track.

Fuel and materials from the sun
SunDiesel is what it sounds, a sustainable fuel which, because it is made from organic material, which absorbed CO2 when growing, is 'CO2 neutral'. In other words, although it releases CO2, it only puts back into the atmosphere what it took out in the first place. In contrast, because fossil fuels were created so many millions of years ago during a time when the Earth's atmosphere was still evolving, burning it today represents a CO2 burden on the atmosphere.

SunDiesel is biofuel made from biomass created by recycling all kinds of scrap wood or straw. It can be mixed with conventional diesel to effectively reduce the CO2 burden but without reducing power and without modifying engines. Trials are underway to see if unmodified diesel engines can run on 100 percent SunDiesel but if they are successful, the problems of cost and quantity still remain. Producing SunDiesel is still between two and three times more expensive than conventional diesel but since it has been exempt from tax in Germany since 2002, the pump price is still competitive. That said, it's still only available in small amounts and for research only.

Future engines
Making engines more efficient and cleaner burning inevitably has a lot to do with how effectively they can burn fuel. It's easy to think of the combustion process as being fairly straightforward - simply squirt fuel and air into the cylinder and make it burn either by compressing it until it gets hot and ignites (diesel) or using a spark (petrol). The expanding gasses that result, drive the pistons down the cylinder and the engine runs.

But it's far more complex that that as you might imagine and the science of how the combustion process works is intricate, complex and influenced by lots of things including fuel composition, the design of the combustion chamber, exhaust and inlet ports, valves, valve timing, ignition timing, the type of spark plug, the design of the injectors, exhaust gas recirculation and much more.

Modern electronics are playing a huge part in making engines more efficient, but some fundamentals may change too. One example, says Mercedes, is the diesel. At the moment, diesels are unthrottled and run lean. That is to say, an excess of air is sucked into the cylinders and fuel is injected while it is being compressed, igniting immediately. The amount of fuel injected is influenced by the position of the accelerator pedal as well as the load on the engine and decides how much power the engine produces. But one day that may change and Mercedes, among others, is looking at diesels that run with a homogeneous (evenly mixed) fuel air mixture like a petrol engine, when running at part load. At higher load, it switches back to injection-controlled combustion again. Direct injection petrol engines have a part to play too also helping to make savings at part load which has a significant impact on the emissions produced by cars, for instance, in city environments.

And what does the future hold? Thomas Weber also cites a sector study published by the MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) less than 15 years ago entitled "The machine that changed the world." The report concluded that the German and European automotive industry was "too expensive, too slow and not sufficiently customer-oriented," and that global competition in the industry would be dominated by US and Japanese car makers. These days, however, Weber says the German auto industry is "breaking one record after another," although his comments were ironic considering his company's position on Mitsubishi and Hyundai. However, DaimlerChrylser's hunger for innovation (mainly from the Mercedes side it has to be said) apparently remains undiminished despite maintaining a fairly low profile on its fuel cell programme. But in terms of success, it seems likely that being capable of staying on top of the technical game and therefore able to field the many demands of future legislation, will form a key part of any global manufacturer's commercial viability in the future. On that score at least, DaimlerChrysler appears to be holding its own.