‘Sensors can make much better decisions in difficult conditions compared to a human being who may be distracted.’

Manu Saale, MD & CEO, Mercedes-Benz R&D India, on the company's ongoing contribution to automotive safety, developing advanced driver assistance systems and analysing accident data. An interview by Shobha Mathur.

By Shobha Mathur calendar 04 May 2015 Views icon3296 Views Share - Share to Facebook Share to Twitter Share to LinkedIn Share to Whatsapp
‘Sensors can make much better decisions in difficult conditions compared to a human being who may be distracted.’

Manu Saale, MD & CEO, Mercedes-Benz R&D India, on the company's ongoing contribution to automotive safety, developing advanced driver assistance systems and analysing accident data. An interview by Shobha Mathur.   

What are the key highlights of Mercedes-Benz R&D India (MBRDI) in terms of design and engineering work?
Being a global captive centre, there is a certain flavour of work we do in India for Mercedes Benz – these are in-source technologies and the core knowhow that we would like to retain in the company. That defines a lot about why the centre is innovating unlike a supplier who would just do what is given to him in an RFQ. This centre is involved in research at the deepest level. We only work for Mercedes-Benz.

On the theme of safety, the India team is also contributing to accident data. We work with agencies and try to understand the pattern behind accidents and analyse Indian accident scenarios. Of course, we have a product intent in mind. We make the safest cars and would like them to operate in different and challenging infrastructure conditions. We, therefore, need to analyse tonnes of infrastructure data and accident data in India to understand the issues. We have been doing so for five years.  A hundred engineers are working solely on safety – designing safety related systems, safety critical systems, simulating safety critical applications for example, the digital crash of a car is undertaken in India very strongly, there are people behind who understand the physics and go about not just crashing but analysing crash data on the computer and coming up with the impact on design and impact on engineering. This is a big input back to global engineering.

This centre is a part-R&D and part-IT centre, so we do R&D for all our cars, buses, trucks and vans as well as a lot of IT applications. We employ 2,300 people – 200 in Pune and the rest in Bangalore. We hired 1,000 people last year.

Does the India R&D centre supply inputs to emerging markets as well?
Certainly we do. What we have realised is that chauffeur-driven cars, for example, are such a common fact specially in the luxury segment in these parts of the world that it makes perfect sense for us to be situated in India analysing the patterns of sitting in the rear seat.

As regards safety in the rear seat – the team at Bangalore is responsible for rear passenger safety. The mandate is in Germany but a huge amount of engineering inputs and designing systems takes place in Bangalore. When it comes to rear passenger safety, restraint systems, bags for example or modelling of various human models for rear passenger safety including child safety and also having the male and female model of the Indian version at the back, all that is done in Bangalore. So if the Mercedes-Benz rear passenger feels safer despite an absence of an airbag, we are talking about belt bags and having advanced restraint systems and seatbelt pretensioners and Bangalore contributes significantly to that.

Which futuristic products is the Indian R&D centre working on that will find applications going forward?
Globally, safety is the biggest mandate that we have. We want to make the safest cars in the world, are already making them and there is some very advanced research going on all the way to autonomous driving. It is an aspect of safety for us because sensors are emotionless, they don’t get distracted. We believe they can make much better decisions in difficult conditions compared to a human being who may be distracted.

So autonomous driving is really giving control to a safer pair of hands which can take over driving but that is the last stage of autonomous driving. In the middle is the ADAS – advanced driver assistance systems – and that is the journey that Mercedes-Benz is taking right now. We are working on several aspects of assisting the driver in an increasingly advanced way. But none of this is for India because it involves usage of certain frequencies, radars and sensors that are not allowed in India as of now. That is why we are not able to implement the level of ADAS we have today.

In the analysis of accident data, which cause did you find most prolific in causing maximum vehicle accidents?
There are several causation factors. Since we make the safest cars in the world, we are not so worried about the car itself contributing towards accidents.

On the other hand, infrastructure plays a very important role here, awareness in terms of road designs, signages, and understanding rules and regulations that play a very significant role as does enforcement because you could have the freedom to be mobile at whatever speeds that you are talking about but at the same time be aware of the implications.

Despite all the safety features in cars, even in super luxury cars, sometimes vehicles have been smashed to smithereens in accidents. Why does this happen?
To be in a serious accident and expect the car to be completely un-deformed is not really realistic because you cannot make it of a material that cannot get deformed otherwise cost, rate and efficiency is a trade-off.

At the end, one has to look at how to protect the people in the car in the event of a crash. The crash grades can vary significantly from a mild one where the body gets deformed going all the way to the extreme where it is reduced to pulp.

There is the concept of having technologies that encapsulate the driver, co-driver and passengers. In the worst crash scenario that I have witnessed as a report, you would imagine seeing the picture and say that the guy has crashed the car to pulp but walked out with minimum injuries to himself because of the cocoon provided inside. If you look at the structure behind you in terms of the body-in-white and the materials used like crumple zones that we consciously design, the impact of the crash and the energy that flows into the vehicle does not fully reach the occupant.


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