1996: Steering wheel gives way to sidesticks
- Mobile research lab for drive-by-wire technology
- New operating and control concept with programmable colour displays
Design for innovations – this was the slogan that had accompanied development of the F 200 Imagination concept study which DaimlerChrysler took the wraps off at the Paris Motor Show in 1996. The two-door coupé was brimming with groundbreaking systems for improving safety and comfort in passenger cars, and afforded visitors to the show a glimpse of the possible technological milestones of the future. The study also demonstrated just how technical innovations could open up new avenues for the styling of future top-of-the-range cars. Form and function of this research car went neatly hand-in-hand, with the coupé study highlighting both the formal and the functional assets of the technological innovations on board.
The most prominent innovations fitted in the F 200 Imagination included an imaginative new driving control system which allowed the driver to control all vehicle movements by means of sidesticks positioned in the door trim panels and in the centre console of the coupé study. Moving the sidesticks to the left or right steered the vehicle, pushing the levers forwards accelerated, pulling it back applied the brakes. The interior of the F 200 Imagination was completely devoid of conventional control and connecting components, such as a steering wheel, steering column or pedals – each and every command from the driver was transmitted electronically, a system which the experts referred to as “drive-by-wire.”
The F 200 Imagination study also presented the Mercedes design team with an ideal opportunity for showing how the omission of a steering wheel and pedals opens up whole new possibilities for the interior styling and controls of the passenger cars that we will be driving in years to come.
The driving control system in the F 200 Imagination was coupled to an active suspension system which adapted the vehicle’s suspension and damping characteristics to the current handling conditions. The result was improved driving safety and ride comfort, something which made the F 200 a mobile laboratory for the Active Body Control system which premiered in Mercedes-Benz series-production models in 1999.
The eye-catching steel panels bordering the glass roof of the F 200 Imagination also housed electronic cameras which removed the need for interior and exterior mirrors. Instead, monitors fitted inside the study’s cockpit kept the driver fully informed of what was going on behind the car. The generously sized displays incorporated into the dashboard did more than just indicate the standard operating information, such as rev speed and the fuel gauge level, they could also show pictures from the vehicle’s own video recorder, TV tuner, built-in computer or navigation system, providing in-car entertainment for the co-driver whilst ensuring that drivers had all the necessary information at their fingertips.
A pushbutton-controlled pivoting mechanism had been devised by the Mercedes engineers for the doors of the F 200 Imagination, with hydraulic cylinders moving the doors upwards to an angle of 30 degrees. The main benefit of this technique was that the resulting door opening was some 15 centimetres wider, making it easier to get into and out of the vehicle whilst also allowing the car to be parked in tighter slots.
The doors could be opened using a card with a magnetic strip which the car owner merely had to carry about his person. As he approached the car, the in-vehicle electronic circuitry automatically established a radio link with the magnetic card and, provided that the code matched, prepared to unlock the doors. This system became known as KEYLESS-GO and was first seen in series production in the S-Class in 1999.
The Mercedes engineers also showed the way forward on the safety front with the inclusion of a new airbag system that gave an effective boost to occupant protection in the event of a side-on collision. Termed the windowbag, it inflated in the event of a crash to form a curtain that extended from the front roof frame strut to the rear, and offered an equal level of protection for passengers in the front and rear. The windowbag has been in series production since 1998 now, when it made its first ever appearance in the E-Class.
Headlamps with variable light distribution which automatically adapted to the current driving situation and road speed gave the driver of the F 200 Imagination a clearer view of the road ahead. Thanks to special reflector technology, the headlamps were able to turn with the wheels, ensuring optimum illumination of the road ahead, even when cornering. This helped pave the way for the subsequent development of the Active Light System, which has been available for Mercedes-Benz models since 2003.
The long, low-set tail of the F 200 Imagination made it quite evident that the designers and engineers had also adopted a new approach when it came to the coupé study’s aerodynamics. Whereas body drag and lift are generally determined by the shape of the vehicle’s tail and boot in saloons and coupés, the desired effect was produced in the F 200 by an electronically controlled spoiler system. The spoiler was situated at the bottom of the rear bumper and altered its position depending on the current speed with the aim of optimising roadholding and driving safety. Added to this is the fact that the adjustable wing briefly had the effect of increasing the downforce under braking, thereby enhancing the braking effect. This later gave rise to the “Airbrake” premiered in the SLR McLaren in 2003.