IT’S a surreal and disarmingly intoxicating experience to sit across from someone who has saved the lives of thousands, if not millions, of people.
First published in the February 2017 issue of Wheels magazine, Australia's best car mag since 1953.
Frank-Werner Mohn is tall, rotund and bubbles with a relentless energy, most of which is being used to attack a steaming plate of what appears to be deer and potato.
He’s also the man who invented ESP, known as the Electronic Stability Program.
We’re sat at a long table in a delightfully authentic, wood-panelled restaurant, nestled in a valley in the German countryside outside of Stuttgart, and Frank’s eyes shine as he tells his story. It’s a good one, not only because it shaped the course of motoring history, but because it begins with something we can all relate to – crashing a car.
“I was young, you know,” he says sheepishly. “I was in Sweden on an icy road testing the steering in a W124 Mercedes-Benz E-Class and I slid into a big ditch. The car went in, it got dark because the snow was so deep and I thought ‘Oop, this is going to roll.”
It didn’t, but as a young Mercedes engineer working with Bosch on ABS calibration in the late ’80s, Frank had suffered the indignity of crashing in front of a group of his colleagues. And yet it was on the side of that slippery road, as Frank stared at the wreck of what had been a shiny and straight 300E only minutes before, where inspiration struck.
“I thought ‘Hey, what if you brake one wheel to stabilise the car?’”
Convinced of his idea, and armed with a working proposal full of complex algorithims, Frank charged back to Germany and pitched the concept to his superiors. They laughed at him.
“‘If you brake one wheel, then the car will turn like a rabbit running from a fox,’ they said. But I was convinced it could work, yet they still laughed.”
There was also the mechanical hurdle of integrating the idea with Bosch’s existing ABS technology, but dogged determination and Frank’s unyielding enthusiasm eventually saw high-ranking Benz engineers drive a working prototype. By 1995, having been co-developed with Bosch, ESP entered production on the circa-$360,000 V12-powered S600 Coupe. Two years later, it was fitted to the A-Class (after it rolled during the infamous Elk test) and then made standard on all Mercedes models. In 2010 it was a mandatory requirement for entry to Wheels Car of the Year.
Wheels has a long history of independently testing advanced safety systems, be it ABS on gravel or ESC (as we refer to ESP) in a controlled environment. It’s important, because even now, more than 20 years since it was first introduced, there’s still a vast gulf in the effectiveness of ESC systems between manufacturers.
This year, we’ve continued the tradition by putting Autonomous Emergency Braking under the microscope. And, just like ESC, our testing (done in conjunction with Insurance Group Australia) during round one of COTY, has proven that not all AEB systems are created equal. In fact, the results have ruffled some feathers (p17 has the full report), and they’re a welcome reminder of what makes Wheels COTY so vital. No other outlet goes to such exhausting and process-driven lengths to find the best car released in the previous year.
It’s why, at the end of seven tiring, though unwaveringly brilliant, days of COTY testing, I found myself taking a deep, shaky breath. I stood in a stark, white-tiled bathroom in the rural town of Inverloch, clutching a bunch of palm cards scribbled with seven different types of handwriting.
It fell to me to tally the final COTY vote, which tradition dictates must occur in the nearest dunny. And as I locked the cubicle door, I realised that for a few months, I’d be the only person on the planet to know what had won the world’s longest-running motoring accolade. As a Wheels fan and reader since my early teens, that too was a surreal and intoxicating experience.