Vehicles made to measure.
Ideas and creativity are the most important materials when working on a research vehicle. Every process step is unique, every single element is one of a kind.
“Every part that you can see here is designed and made by us, you can’t buy them anywhere,” says Peter Lehmann, who is in charge of research vehicles at Daimler. That also makes him the project manager for the F 015, which was launched at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas in January 2015.
EXISTING SOLUTIONS SHOULDN’T BE INVENTED A SECOND TIME
The creators of research vehicles are not able to use complete components – even if they have already reached a high degree of complexity in series production. One exception in the current project is an axle that has been optimized and equipped for autonomous driving. The designers were able to base this axle on a test object from the Mercedes-Benz E-Class. “Of course we jumped at the chance, because there’s no point in going to great lengths to reinvent the wheel,” Peter Lehmann told us.
Despite this lucky break, developing a research vehicle takes a lot of time and money. This is also reflected in the number of experts involved in design, planning and construction at Daimler: Around 200 people worldwide participate in a project of this type, mainly from research, design and pre-development units. Other development centres also contribute their skills and services. According to Peter Lehmann, having the different units working hand in hand like this has proved successful over several generations of research vehicles.
18 MONTHS, WHICH ARE DETERMINED BY A VERY TIGHT AND DETAILED TIMETABLE
Lehmann says that behind every Mercedes-Benz research vehicle lies an exciting story of future visions and applications for automotive engineering. If you follow the narrative of this story all the way from the initial idea to the finished vehicle, it is a process that takes about two years on average. The first milestone is the requirements specification, generated over a six-month creative and ideas phase. From that point onwards the project takes about another eighteen months, which are subject to a very tight and detailed schedule: model confirmation, design, development and finally the production of the finished research vehicle.
The original creative sketches of the design for the complete vehicle and its individual elements are followed by an increasingly detailed focus on the core issues. These interim drafts are realized as models on a scale of 1:4 to make it possible to judge proportions and the effect of the stylistic features. Up to this point series production development and the development of research vehicles are pretty much identical.
But once it comes to making and assembling the components the parallels end. The individual components are not manufactured in batches of thousands, but rather as one-offs or at most exclusive small-scale production runs. This is where rapid prototyping comes to the fore, which allows digital sketches to be turned into molds and components with great speed and precision.
SHEET METAL STRAIN HARDENING PRECISELY HAND CRAFTED AND ADVANCED ADHESIVE TECHNIQUES
The assembly too is dominated by a philosophy of hand-crafting. The typical joining methods used in series production, such as automatic spot welding by robots, are not available to the F-Car designers. But Peter Lehmann and his team do not feel in any way restricted by this. The processes available to them range from the classic methods of automotive model-making, such as sheet metal cold forming done with great accuracy by hand, to state-of-the-art adhesive bonding techniques and 3D printing of entire components. “In order to realize a completely new body shell we use any methods that can meet our requirements with regard to mechanical strength and visual quality,” says Lehmann. Unlike in a design study, the team behind the research vehicle is not creating a model – they are building a real car that must be fully functional in road traffic.
The more innovative the applications are, the more flexible the processes need to be. Peter Lehmann explains this using the example of the seating configuration for the F 015, with its revolving lounge chairs that very graphically illustrate the vision of autonomous driving: Designing these central elements of the vehicle’s interior was not merely a technical challenge but also required an innovative use of the space and its effect on the passengers. Developers had previously grappled with exploring new concepts of automotive space, where the driver’s seat becomes part of the seating group, while working on earlier research vehicles, but never as thoroughly as for the F 015.
CARL BENZ AND GOTTLIEB DAIMLER MUST NOT HAVE CHOSEN A DIFFERENT APPROACH
The production of the electronic and electromechanical systems for research vehicles also differs radically from series production: While the cockpit, seats and other elements for line-produced passenger cars are supplied preassembled, Lehmann and his team put together all mechanical components inside the vehicle from scratch. Everything from seats to communication systems takes shape gradually, one piece at a time. After assembly, each step is carefully checked, and corrected if there are any doubts. Carl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler probably worked in much the same way when they created the world’s first ever motor cars back in 1886.
Once the control units, screens, sensors, lights, mechanics and all the other systems are running smoothly, does it mean are we now looking at the finished research vehicle? “Not at all,” laughs Peter Lehmann, “at that point the interior of the car still looks very much under construction”. The reason is quite prosaic: In order to ensure an efficient workflow, it makes no sense to finalize the interior surfaces before all of the functionality is stabilized.
In particular, this concerns the integration of the electronic systems, many of which originate from communication or consumer electronics. “For one thing, we need to check every component to ensure that it meets the demanding requirements for automotive use,” explains Peter Lehmann. “For example, a display in our research vehicle must be able to function perfectly at minus 20 degrees Celsius – and it must be possible to install it pre-toughened.” At the same time, they need to take account of the very short innovation cycles in consumer electronics, compared to those of the automotive sector. The resolution, format and brilliance of the interactive displays used in the F 015 were upgraded several times while the team was working on the vehicle. The sensory system of the research vehicle used in the gesture, touch and voice control of its systems also improved during that period.
Due to these dynamics, Lehmann concludes, the final designs of all components were only finished six months before completion – and by no means all of the parts had been produced by then. However, he says it is typical when building research vehicles that the project reaches the high level desired in every individual detail only at the very end.