Want a sneak peek at the gadgets and gizmos on your car of tomorrow? Look no further than the Mercedes-Benz S-Class of today
It is probably impossible to answer a question: “What is the best car in the world?”. However, if there was a car that could legitimately lay claim to that title, the Mercedes-Benz S-Class would be a strong contender.
Throughout its seven-decade history, the S-Class has been the yardstick by of luxury cars. While it may no longer be the last word in sheer opulence, it is undoubtedly a trend setter in automotive technology.
The Mercedes flagship may embody prestige status, but in a way it is also a car of the people. History has repeatedly shown that the innovations which debut on an S-Class eventually trickle down to the average family car. This is especially true when it comes to safety innovations. So you could say that the arrival of any new S-Class is a momentous occasion not just for Mercedes, but for the whole car industry too.
With the new seventh-generation S-Class that has just been launched, the narrative is no different. It is packed with some really intriguing technology. Before going into that, here are some of the most significant contributions the S-Class has made:
W111 “Fintail” (1959-1968) – Crumple zones
Have you heard people say things like, “They don’t make cars like they used to.”? “When you crashed an old car, it remained it one piece!”
Quite simply, those people are flat out wrong. Thanks to the W111-series “Fintail” Mercedes sedan introduced in 1959, which incorporated crumple zones. Areas on the front and rear of the car which were designed to deform in a crash. In doing so, they absorb the destructive energy instead of transmitting it into the main passenger compartment.
Today, it is one of the fundamental principles of car safety design.
W116 (1971-1979) – Anti-lock brakes
The best solution to staying safe in a crash is to avoid having one in the first place, of course. Inspired by aircraft technology, Anti-lock Braking System (ABS) is arguably the most significant automotive safety development of the 20th Century. It is not only a widespread feature today, but even mandatory equipment in most parts of the world.
ABS works by intermittently grabbing and releasing the brakes several times a second. This allows the car’s wheels to keep rotating for the driver to steer away from an impending collision while braking. Without ABS, the wheels lock up under hard braking and the car simply careens into the hazard.
The W116-series S-Class wasn’t quite the first car to introduce ABS when the feature debuted in 1978. It was beaten to the punch by the Chrysler Imperial and Toyota Crown. But since these cars were never sold internationally, Mercedes could be credited with introducing the technology to the worldwide market.
W126 (1979-1991) – Airbags
If ABS isn’t enough to prevent an accident then perhaps the next best thing is to soften the impact. Alright, receiving a rapidly expanding bag of gases to the face isn’t exactly ‘soft’. However airbags are another life-saver that made its debut on an S-Class.
The driver’s airbag exploded (hur hur) onto the scene in the W126-series S-Class in 1981. This was followed by the passenger airbag in 1985. These days, you won’t find a new car on sale that doesn’t have at least two airbags. Even something like a humble Toyota Corolla can have six or more. The latest Mercedes S-Class meanwhile, features a never before seen airbag development that we’ll get to in a bit…
W140 (1991-1998) – Stability control
Another common active safety feature we see today helps mitigate an accident in the first place. Electronic Stability Program (ESP) as Mercedes called it is a development made possible by ABS. This feature utilises an array of sensors to detect when a car is skidding out of control. It then brakes individual the wheels to stop the slide and bring the car back into line.
The computing power required for such an advanced task wasn’t cheap when the feature arrived in 1995. This is probably why it was available initially only on the top-of-the-range S 600 Coupe.
W220 (1998-2005) – Radar-guided cruise control
The turn of the millennium brought a smaller, lighter S-Class, but also a smarter one. This was when the world saw the first buds of what we would recognise as autonomous driving today.
The W220-series S-Class marked the arrival of Distronic, Mercedes-Benz’s name for its radar-guided cruise control system. This wasn’t the first system of its kind that could automatically maintain a safe distance from the vehicle in front. It was the first system to be able to bring the car to a standstill, in stop-go traffic, and accelerate back up to cruising speed without driver intervention.
Additionally, this S-Class gave us Pre-Safe. If the system detected an impending impact, it would optimise protection by closing the sunroof and windows, tighten the seatbelts, and reposition the seats for the seat belts and airbags to work most effectively.
W222 (2013-2020) – Road-scanning suspension
The previous generation S-Class greatly expanded the scope and capabilities of Pre-Safe. This time, adding pedestrian and cross-traffic detection. It had the ability to autonomously slam on the brakes should the driver fail to do so. It could also detect if an impact was incoming from the rear, and take the appropriate measures accordingly.
Away from the safety features, the W222-series also had a breakthrough in ride comfort, with Magic Body Control. Dubbed by Mercedes as the first suspension system with ‘eyes’, the car could scan the road ahead for bumps and undulations. It would then prime the suspension, allowing the car to anticipate road imperfections as opposed to simply reacting to them in order to keep the car level.
W223 (2020) – Everything but the kitchen sink
And finally, we come to the brand new model; there’s so much tech and features to unpack that the press release extends to a dizzying 75 pages long. But don’t worry, we’ve combed through it to bring you just a few digestible highlights:
Rear seat frontal airbags
The place to be in any S-Class is of course the rear seat. To this point, another world first: a frontal airbag for rear passengers.
With the amount of legroom available, we didn’t think there is a danger of rear passengers bonking their heads. Apparently however, the crash forces are still high enough to be a worry. What this rear airbag does is deploy ‘particularly gently’ to reduce injuries to the heads and necks of rear occupants.
There’s also a new airbag in between the two front seats. This prevents driver and passenger contact during a side impact. Another airbag at the base of the rear seats prevents people sliding (submarining) under the seatbelt when they’re reclined.
Level 3 autonomous driving
Autonomous driving might be one of the big buzzwords that car manufacturers like to impress you with. On the other hand, we’re not at the stage where we can let cars drive themselves yet. At least, not until the new S-Class hits the road.
You see, all existing auto-drive functions, even Tesla’s much-touted Autopilot mode, are technically merely still driving assistance features. They are only Level 2 on the industry-standard Society of Automotive Engineers’ Driving Automation scale. Although the car can technically drive itself, the driver must still pay attention to the road and maintain control.
The new S-Class’ Drive Pilot system though, is the brand’s first ever implementation of Level 3 autonomy in a road car. This can be used at speeds up to 60km/h. Drivers can take their eyes and minds off the road and attend to other matters such as sending emails or grabbing a bite. They must however, be able to take over manual control within ten seconds.
Whether this option will be available locally remains to be seen. The outgoing Audi A8 was technically the first production car to be Level 3 capable. Legislations however, are still not passed to make the feature a reality.
3D and augmented reality
With the new S-Class, you really have no excuses for missing that turn on the navigation system. The fancy head-up display claims to be equivalent to a 77-inch monitor. It features augmented reality graphics to really catch your eye. Pictures can describe this much better than words can, so we’ll leave this video here to do the explaining:
Most buttons are replaced by a massive portrait-oriented touchscreen. There’s an optional larger OLED display as an option.
The driver’s instrument panel meanwhile, has a 3D mode for “a spatial view”. You don’t even need special glasses to see it!
Tiptoeing for safer side impacts
Side impacts are the most damaging kind of collision, primarily because there’s less distance between the cabin and environment. The door apertures also mean there are large holes in the car’s structure. Although side and curtain airbags help, the S-Class takes it (literally) to a whole new level.
Mercedes calls it Pre-Safe Impulse Side. Just before a side impact, it jacks air suspension up to its maximum height (+8cm) so the door sills, which are stronger than the doors and central pillar, can absorb the blow instead.
Lighting up your world
All S-Classes get full LED lights as standard, but if you go for the Digital Light option, you get something truly illuminating (ok, last pun, I promise).
In these headlights, three main LED elements are augmented by 1.3 million micro-mirrors per side. The minute and intricate ways the mirrors can manipulate the light beams mean the headlights themselves can communicate messages. For example:
– Warning of recognised roadworks by projecting an excavator symbol onto the road surface
– Aiming a spotlight at pedestrians detected at the roadside as a warning
– Traffic lights, stop signs or no-entry signs are pointed out by projecting a warning symbol onto the road surface
– Assistance on narrow road lanes (roadworks) by projecting guidelines onto the road surface
Mercedes-Benz Singapore says that the new S-Class should arrive in Singapore by the middle of 2021. It’s just a shame we’ll have to wait much longer to see these features appear in lesser cars too.