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Mazda’s Renesis Rotary (Wankel) Engine

The rotary engine was conceived by Felix Wankel in Germany in 1926 with the first functional prototype not actually running until 1957 – this was largely due to the Second World War and the fragmented post-war Germany.

Mazda’s Renesis rotary engine can be seen here with the basic stages of rotation illustrated.


Mercedes NECAR Hydrogen Fuel Cell Car

Mercedes-Benz (DaimlerChrysler) believe that fuel cell vehicles offer the best options for sustainable vehicle propulsion. Since the 1990s, DaimlerChrysler and its affiliated companies have developed and demonstrated hydrogen and fuel cell technology for automotive applications. Researchers and engineers have been working toward practical implementations of this technology since the early nineties. DaimlerChrysler presented its first fuel cell concept study for the NECAR series in 1994. Since then, 20 different vehicle prototypes with fuel cell drives have been developed and tested. The vehicles range from the Mercedes-Benz A-Class and the Jeep Commander to the NEBUS.

In 2001, DaimlerChrysler presented the “Natrium” (the Latin word for sodium), which demonstrated an innovative and unconventional method for storing hydrogen: on board a minivan, hydrogen was generated directly from a white salt – sodium borohydride.

In May 2002, the NECAR 5, running on methanol travelled 3000 miles across the US to prove the technology to the World at large. Practical use came in 2004 when the first F-cell, based on the Mercedes-Benz A-Class began use under normal conditions around the world. Additionally, bus and commercial vehicle fuel cell vehicles are in operation in many countries.

The A-Class lent itself well to use as a fuel cell vehicle. It is believed that the A-Class was originally intended to house electric propulsion and was hence designed with space below the passengers. This space is utilised in the NECAR for the fuel cell system components – especially energy storage in the form of hydrogen tanks and batteries.

Battery technology continues to develop and improve leading to increasing efficiencies and space savings. Future generations of fuel cell vehicles are likely to use smaller battery packs, making packaging simpler. However, hydrogen is already stored in compressed form and offers very little room for space saving in the future. Instead, improvements in the fuel cell process will be the key to reducing the need for fuel and hence the need for fuel storage.
Images courtesy & © DaimlerChrysler

Vehicle Intelligence

Basic computer systems have been used in cars for several years. Most recently, they have been used to offer more advanced on-board information systems. Central processors have for some time been used to control engine management – ensuring smooth running, good fuel efficiency and performance. They have, however, performed relatively simple tasks and are not safety critical.

More advanced use of information technology in cars will lead to an increase in user-orientated systems. Systems will continue to be developed to control and manage the mechanical elements of a vehicle – such as engine, suspension and braking – but the most noticeable changes will take place inside.

Displays & Interfaces

One area of vehicle intelligence that has already raised its head above the parapet is that of user interfaces. It is now possible to display all the information a driver or occupant may want without the use of three-dimensional analogue displays. Above and beyond that, it is now possible to cater the information that is displayed to the particular preferences of a user and to further vary that according to changing conditions – such as traffic, weather, time of day etc. It is envisaged that information relating to specific traffic conditions could be relayed to a driver in motion. Such systems would not only indicate congestion problems but perhaps warn of large numbers of pedestrians, accident black spots, approaching emergency vehicles – even opportunities for refuelling should the tank be empty.

Importantly for designers, the manipulation of displays and interfaces will allow the use of new aesthetic concepts, the simplification of dashboard forms and the ability to incorporate a large number of controls into small areas.

Design considerations

  • Controls can take the form of touch sensitive displays, allowing greater use of smooth surfaces.
  • Using multi-mode and menu systems, digital displays can eliminate the need for dashboard space for every control.
  • Using technologies such as E-Ink, it will be possible to place displays and controls over entire surfaces; this offers opportunities for 2D graphic aesthetics (like computer screensavers) to be developed as well as the creation of large interactive work surfaces.

Environmental Interaction

Many location based information systems are already available and use satellite positioning coupled with pre-stored data about certain locations as well as live traffic information. With the increase of wireless technology, and ultimately its ubiquitous presence, it will be possible for a vehicle to simply collect (and pass on) information as it moves through different areas.

Vehicle Safety

A high-speed camera is used to capture visual information during crash tests. Image courtesy & © Volvo Car Corporation

Safety is an increasingly significant element of vehicle design. The earliest automotive legislation related to safety and still accounts for the bulk of all vehicle regulation.

Today, there are two main forces driving improvements in vehicle safety. The first is the consumer, the car buyer who wants a vehicle that will protect them and their family in the event of an accident. The second is the legislature, the organisation responsible for laws and regulations; they not only want improvements in safety for occupants but also for third parties such as pedestrians and other road users.

With sales of premium brands increasing as value brands decline, safety is often a large part of the premium product. In addition to Volvo, most brands now market their safety credentials to the consumer; not least Renault who have invested substantial resources in achieving high EuroNCAP ratings for the reasons outlined above. Safety is a core component of vehicle design.

EuroNCAP Rear Collision Tests


Some basic concepts in safety design for vehicles.

Passenger Safety

For decades, vehicle safety has centred around the occupant(s). This section takes a look at the significant aspects of passenger safety.

Pedestrian Safety

A relatively new field, with much yet to be discovered. This section covers the new design approaches to dealing with pedestrian-vehicle impacts.


Simple and complex products and systems work together to make up the full portfolio of safety elements on a car. In this section we explore the technologies that are key to safety improvements from crash


SAVE-U – Sensors and system Architecture for VulnerablE road Users

Safety Principles

There are two main routes to improving vehicle safety. Firstly, there is prevention – keeping people, objects and vehicles away from each other and out of harm’s way. This is achieved by combining many hundreds of factors such as driver education, design of pedestrian crossings and requirements for vehicle performance and maintenance. It is this approach that brought about much of the earlier vehicle legislation that addresses lighting, turning indicators and basic demands on components such as windscreens, mirrors and tyres.

As traffic volumes increased, so did the rate of accident and injury. This lead to further requirements and laws for the design of vehicles as well as a rethink (in most countries) of speed limits and road networks. It begun the second stage of safety design – passenger or passive safety.

Nils Bohlin of Volvo invented the modern seat belt in 1959. This was the three point seat belt and made such a difference to crash safety that it was included as a basic requirement to install belts in cars in some of the earliest European legislation – although compulsory use came much later. In effect, this was the first in a long line of developments from Volvo to improve passenger safety; an aspect of design that most other manufacturers cared little for until the 1990s.

Nowadays, safety is considered in many more ways than ever before – from the structural performance of a vehicle in impact to the ability of a driver to see clearly past an A- or B-post. Increasingly, pedestrian impact is also being considered.


Preventive safety is about designing a vehicle that can be easily seen by other road users, a vehicle that is easy to see out of and a vehicle that presents a driver with all the information they require and no more. Good visibility is key to identifying problems quickly and making the correct decision in good time. Poor visibility due to weather leads to dramatic increases in the rates and severity of road accidents.

Energy Transfer and Absorption

Reactive safety is about minimising damage and injury once an accident becomes unavoidable; this means designing structures and devices that absorb the energy of impact rather than transfer it to a person or object in a dangerous and uncontrollable way.

Vehicle Control and Handling

ABS, or anti-locking brakes, are an example of control assistance that aids the safe performance of a vehicle. This and other systems such as traction and stability control can enable safer driving by compensating for limits in human ability. They make a substantial difference when a vehicle is being used to its maximum but can lead to a reliance or complacency by drivers which can in turn negate the safety benefits. Manufacturers recognise that there is a point at which safety features make a driver feel so at ease that their driving deteriorates and becomes more dangerous.

Pedestrian Safety

Designing for Pedestrians in Impact

In direct response to proposed and actual EU legislation, manufacturers are trying to stop pedestrians impacting with hard-points at the front of vehicles. The principle responses are to either raise the bonnet to a stance that better absorbs energy, or to use airbags to cushion against these hard-points. Although these approaches offer a way to maintain existing styling traits, they are unlikely to be as simple or effective as more dramatic changes in vehicle front design.

In 2000, 28% of UK road fatalities were pedestrians. Key improvements seem to revolve around giving the right amount of support, in the right areas, to a pedestrian in impact. It is suggested that bumpers have a deeper profile or a support structure below the surface to reduce “pitching of the leg-form and bending of the knee joint”. ‘Foam plastics’ could be used to absorb the energy of the impact as they possess good ‘recovery characteristics’ to reduce permanent damage to the vehicle in “low-speed car-to-car collisions”.

At the leading edge of the bonnet it is desirable to reduce the stiffness of the structure and avoid the location of catches and other fixings close to the surface. Bonnet reinforcing structure and panel seams add to the number of risk areas for impact. Statistics by the (UK) Transport Research Laboratory predict design improvements could prevent 8% of all pedestrian fatalities and 21% of serious injuries. The UK Department of the Environment, Transport & the Regions (DETR) is more optimistic, believing up to 20% of pedestrian fatalities could be prevented within 8 years.

Several key changes to design can be considered as a means to improve pedestrian impact performance:

  • Bumper foam needs to be 20-40mm thicker than on current vehicles and may need to be bigger in the vertical direction.
  • “A low level foam-covered beam is needed to reduce rotation of the knee joint. This could be disguised under a spoiler-style skin..”
  • Lights should be kept below the upper leg crush zone or designed to deform in a controlled way.
  • Under bonnet clearance should be at least 75mm, with special consideration paid to major features such as shock absorber mounts. Some suggestions have been made that double-wishbone suspension may be an alternative – this depends on the packaging in this area.

There is some difference of opinion on bonnet leading-edge height. Some sources state that anything above 650mm in height is undesirable where other point out that “making the hood edge height higher is effective in lowering the vehicle-head collision speed”. It is noted though, that “if the edge of the hood is too high, it might be dangerous for children because their heads might be directly hit by the front of the car”. They chose 800mm as a suitable height as it is lower than the head of a 3 year old child. There is no defining conclusion on the subject of leading edge height; it makes more sense to look at reducing hard points, improving controlled plastic deformation to absorb energy and stiffening lower bumper structure to minimise leg injury.

In tests on bonnet structure, it was concluded that steel, backed with a ‘soft foam elastic material’ performed better than any other metal-based structure. No solely polymer structures were tested. Traditional bonnet design involves dangerous points of reinforcement and its performance in impact is very difficult to predict or control.

Modifying existing methods of manufacture to improve pedestrian impact performance may not be the ideal direction to take. It should be noted that bonnet clearance needs are different for children and adults, that clam-shell bonnets are preferred, that simply raising everything for greater clearance over componentry will increase drag and thus fuel consumption. Existing vehicle structures cannot produce uniform responses to impact and some common practices – such as the use of MacPherson strut suspension – are almost incompatible with long-term improvements in this field.

Headlight design may also need to change. The front of the headlight could become part of the passive safety system, where the lens will be collapsible and packaging requirements will alter as the lighting unit is moved back from the likely point of impact.


Looking specifically at the bonnet area, user intervention in the engine bay area is constantly decreasing. In fact, with current levels of reliability, most users need access to the engine bay only to replenish items like the screenwash. Given that the bonnet is simply a reinforced sheet metal lid on most vehicles, why not separate access to the engine from that of the replenishable fluids? Access to these items could be tidied away to a more convenient place. This would allow the bonnet to be replaced by simpler, stiffer structure that could save weight or be used more efficiently in dissipating the energy of an impact.

With the bonnet replaced by a stiffer structure, it may then be possible to create a more efficient body using fewer and lighter materials. The result would be a vehicle that weighs less, requires less energy to propel and impacts with decreased momentum; ideal characteristics for a safety- and environmentally-conscious vehicle. If access from above is not required for most major engine bay components, it is then feasible to more densely package them, moving all major hardpoints even further from areas of pedestrian impact as well as reducing the vehicle’s footprint.


Research into bumper development used ‘special energy absorbing elements’ made of PolyPropylene under a PolyPropylene skin to achieve a balance in impact performance across the bonnet leading edge, bumper and spoiler area. Although an ideal vehicle front “is not completely achieved by choosing special material properties only”, the only firm suggestion relating to styling is that features creating high local stiffnesses should be avoided.

Useful Links

Australia: Road fatalities among older pedestrians

Road Deaths: EU Comparison, UK Office for National Statistics

NHTSA Research and Development