Around 30 years ago, Mercedes-Benz introduced numerous digital systems and, above all, their networking in production vehicles. Together, they increase safety and comfort and open the door to a new way of thinking: that electronics perfectly complements classic automotive technology and is thus an innovation accelerator. A brilliant harbinger is the F 100 research vehicle, on display today in the Mercedes-Benz Museum. The company presented it to an astonished world public in 1991: with, among other things, a central screen behind the steering wheel, proximity control, telephone voice recognition, KEYLESS-GO, Blind Spot Assist, automatic lane keeping and a reversing camera, the F 100 looked like science fiction on wheels.
“Science reality” would be more accurate. The future was just around the corner. Because a short time later, Mercedes-Benz ignited a veritable fireworks display of world premieres in digital systems.
Technology still inspires him every day. He recognised the possibilities of electronics at an early stage and pushed forward its use in automobiles in all areas: Professor Hermann Gaus.
The TELEAID emergency call system and the LINGUATRONIC voice-operated control system were milestones – whose function in today’s successor systems is even more sophisticated.
“That was a very challenging and exciting time for me,” recalls Professor Hermann Gaus, 86. At the time, the mechanical engineer was director of passenger car engineering design and responsible for electrics/electronics (E/E), among other things.
What impressed him back then? “The spirit of optimism in the field of electronics. It opened up so many possibilities. We tested almost all of them. Not every technology, the values can be processed more easily and precisely. The complementary technological leap required was then provided by microprocessors from the beginning of the 1970s: the chips offered enormous computing power in the smallest space.
As a byproduct, computers became mobile – something that is now taken for granted in all areas of life.
Back to cars. What are the early milestones of digital technology? “The ABS anti-lock braking system became the first digital assistance system in 1978,” answers Gaus. “In 1985, we added the ASD automatic limited-slip differential, ASR anti-slip control and 4MATIC all-wheel drive. In 1989, the SL of the R 129 series came with a host of other electronic systems, including an automatic roll-over bar,” Gaus reels off quickly. His enthusiasm for what was achieved at the time is clearly visible. “However, it was clear to us that we needed networking, via what are called bus systems, so that the individual control units could communicate with each other.”
The premiere vehicle for the CAN bus was the 500 E of the 124 series in 1990, which would be the first complete model series to feature this technology.
This series also offered other innovations during its production period, such as the Electronic Stability Program ESP , Brake Assist BAS, the electronic parking assistance system PARKTRONIC, the Auto Pilot System APS navigation system, the voice-operated control system LINGUATRONIC and the emergency call system TELEAID. All groundbreaking at the time and even more sophisticated and indispensable today.
The example of ABS illustrates how great the technical challenges were in the early days 50 years ago: as early as 1972, after intensive development of sensors and controls, Mercedes-Benz presented the first version of the anti-lock braking system. It was based on analogue electronics – the available state of the art. But the system did not offer full vehicle control. However, this was a declared development goal, so that a car remains steerable on slippery surfaces during emergency braking.
The engineers started all over again, rebuilding the ABS, this time with the help of the brand-new digital microprocessors. The company’s staying power bore fruit: the anti-lock braking system presented in 1978 worked wonderfully and became the industry standard, as did other systems from Mercedes-Benz later on.
The success story continued at an almost breathless pace. “The 220 series S-Class introduced in 1998 was the next big leap,” Gaus describes, and his eyes light up again. “This S-Class added further important technologies to our long list of electronics innovations. For example, it was the first Mercedes-Benz with, among other things, an instrument cluster including a central display, the control system COMAND, DISTRONIC proximity control and KEYLESS-GO instead of a car key. It also had the most powerful networking of the individual components at that time. With this S-Class, we had finally arrived in the new era.” For the brand’s new flagship, Gaus spurred his team on to top performance. His employees experienced him as an enthusiastic but also critical electronics fan: during the development of the 220 series, every Monday they would receive lists of fault items to be worked through, which Gaus had encountered during test drives at the weekend. It was worth the effort. The 220 series was ahead of its time, especially with regard to the navigation system, LINGUATRONIC and DISTRONIC, and set standards for modern innovation management in series development.
In 1991, electronics of all kinds were installed in the F 100 research vehicle. Among other things, it presented KEYLESS-GO and the chip card instead of car keys.
With respect to the current MBUX infotainment system, he says: “My vision of comprehensive voice control has been more than fulfilled nowadays.” Even the first navigation system did not simply fall from the satellite-equipped sky, but was the result of years of work. Gaus drove the development forward, was on the road a lot, spoke with start-up companies and established suppliers.
Again and again, key points had to be overcome: “We didn’t have GPS sensors at first. But they were necessary, to give us a practicable level of accuracy in determining the position. When the sensors became available, they were initially immensely expensive, costing more than 1,000 marks,” says Gaus. “When such innovations were introduced, the S-Class always helped because its customers were willing to spend the money. But of course only if the benefit was discernible.”
The expert has brought a trade magazine on the technology of the 220 series to the interview and turns specifically to one particular diagram. The 220s have multiple networks and serial connections: the most important innovation was the optical D2B bus with fibre optics for the communication systems. The networks do not work shielded from each other, but communicate with each other via so-called gateways: overarching functions became possible. “With networking, sensor signals can be used several times and all system made it into production cars, but many did – and each with intent. Because the goal was to make cars even better.”
A brief digression. In electronics, there are analogue and digital signals – one kind is infinitely variable, the other consists of individual values. Because small signal nuances do not matter in digital control units can communicate with each other. That brought considerable progress,” explains the former chief developer, who still keeps a watchful eye on current technology today.
“For example, the radar sensor of DISTRONIC is not only used for proximity control, but now also for automatic emergency braking before an obstacle. Without digital technology and data networks in the vehicle to complement the classic wiring harness, this would not be possible.”
On the road to even more comfort and safety with the help of electronics, the engineers faced numerous challenges. For example: “Voice control of the car phone was an important concern for me, to increase safety. We were pioneers in the field. Our first prototype in the 1990s did indeed work perfectly – but only with men’s voices, as we soon realised,” describes Gaus and still has to smile about it today. “Women’s voices have a different frequency spectrum. Of course, we adapted the system accordingly and were able to celebrate a much-acclaimed premiere of LINGUATRONIC. More powerful computers then rapidly improved speech input significantly.”
Exciting question to Captain Gaus: How did he, as a mechanical engineer, come into contact with electronics? The pioneer thinks for a moment about the question. “I have always been fascinated by controls. As early as the 1960s, when I designed them on a hydraulic basis for automatic transmissions,” says Gaus. “Electronics opened up new possibilities. That made me curious as an engineer: I always want to understand how something works, what technical possibilities open up. So I went deeper and designed electronic controls. When computer technology came along, I got involved with it and also learned programming on my own initiative. Simply because I wanted to know how to do it.”
The graduate engineer was in the company’s service for a good 40 years, overseeing countless exciting projects and advancing the automobile with his skills and activities during this dynamic development history. Most recently with the Maybach (Series 240), which was presented in 2002. “Actually, I wanted to retire in 1999, after the premiere of the CL Coupé of the beautiful C 215 series. But when Professor Hubbert offered me the project and development management of the Maybach, I couldn’t say no.”
His thirst for knowledge is unquenchable, as a look in his garage shows. The current E-Class is there. “With all the electronic systems that are available,” says Hermann Gaus. “That’s how I always equip my cars, because I always want to get to know the latest technology. And our automotive technology still inspires me to this day.”
In 1962, he joined Daimler-Benz AG. After working in automatic transmission development, he was appointed head of department in passenger car design engineering in 1982, responsible for electrics/electronics, among other things. In 1988, he became director of overall vehicle design engineering and testing, and in 1994 was appointed head of development for the E-Class and S-Class. From 1998 onwards, his career was crowned by his work as project and development manager for the Maybach of that time. Gaus retired in 2003. Looking back, he says, what he wanted to do in all his roles was to shape things, whereby technology and team had to work hand in hand to achieve this: “I wouldn’t want to have missed a single day. My heart still beats for Mercedes-Benz.”