The next Mercedes-Benz S-class will observe and react to its surroundings like no car has before, as the luxury saloon breaks new ground in automotive safety.

Each new generation of S-class has heralded new or improved safety features, including crumple zones (1959), disc brakes (1961), ABS (1978), driver’s airbag (1981) and electronic stability control (1995).

Today, rival car-makers are working on the latest ground-breaking safety tech, but the S-class has a strong record of introducing life-savers both to the wider market and rival car-makers.

That’s why the latest suite of new safety kit, dubbed ‘Intelligent Drive’ and set to be launched on the next-generation S-class, is deemed so important.

“This is the intelligent interlinking of sensors and systems to create a new dimension of motoring,” says Mercedes’ development boss Thomas Weber.

A fully specced new S-class will use 25 external sensors, grouped into radar, visible light, infrared and ultrasound detection functions, whose signals are aggregated and interpreted to give the car near-360deg visibility with a range of up to 500m.

The most groundbreaking of the sensors is the stereo camera, mounted by the rear-view mirror, which provides perspective of objects up to 50m in front of the car within a 45deg range.

In-house development of Intelligent Drive systems is aided by Merc’s £20 million driving simulator, which is claimed by the firm to be the most dynamic of its kind in the world. Cars are placed inside the simulator’s seven-tonne pod, which is then manipulated into motion as computer-generated moving images are projected on to the pod’s inner walls. Hundreds of demographically diverse drivers have helped to hone the latest S-class’s systems in this way.

The long-term goals are ‘accident-free driving’ and the ‘autonomous car’, although Mercedes promises neither. The next S-class’s most striking new features, shown in the gallery above, clearly sketch out those endgames.

Technical highlights in full: Lane-keeping assistance

The stereo camera and radar sensors detect oncoming traffic and cars from behind pulling out to overtake. If the threat is serious, the car is diverted back into its lane by gently braking on the safe side only. It is active from 37mph to 124mph. The steering wheel also vibrates if the car wanders into an adjacent lane.

Adaptive cruise control

New Steering Assist keeps the car in lane, even on gentle bends, via stereo vision and radar. Combined with existing Distronic Plus that maintains a set gap from the car ahead via brake, throttle and gearbox control, this creates semi-autonomous following — close to a self-driving car, in other words. However, the driver still has to be in control, and this is measured by super-sensitive steering wheel metrics that detect if the driver removes his hands.

Rib airbag

The ‘beltbag’ has Velcro seams that are forced apart by compressed gas during frontal impacts, tripling the belt’s width. The beltbag spreads forces across the internal organs and reduces the severity of injury.

Drowsiness detection

Attention Assist becomes more sensitive, partly by using new steering wheel sensors with Distronic Plus to help gauge the driver’s level of alertness. Active from 37mph to 124mph, the system constantly displays its reading in five stages and triggers a visual and acoustic alarm to wake a dozy driver. It integrates with the sat-nav to display nearby rest areas on request.

Traffic sign recognition

Speed limit signs are detected by a camera mounted inside the front windscreen, then cross-referenced with limit data stored in the sat-nav. Roadside signs take priority. This includes signs on gantries as well as temporary roadworks. The system now has the ability to recognise ‘no overtaking’ signs and reminds the driver via the sat-nav screen.

Cross-traffic brake assistance

This combines the brake assist system with the stereo camera and radar inputs. These flag up and react to potential risks from lateral traffic, feeding in from either side. Designed to be effective in urban settings at up to 45mph, this tech is said by Mercedes to avoid impact or mitigate injury in 27 per cent of accidents that occur at junctions.

Accident anticipation

Based on stereo camera and radar sensors, it supplements pre-safe autonomous braking with pedestrian detection. Can prevent collisions at up to 31mph; up to 45mph it mitigates the impact. Also prevents rear-end shunts by flashing hazard-warning lights to a car approaching quickly from behind. Prepares brake system and seatbelts for a potential impact.

Adaptive lighting

Using more than 190 LEDs, the next S-class will be the first bulb-free car. LEDs use half the energy of xenons but are just as bright. Tail-light brightness adjusts for the conditions, while headlights maintain their cornering action and gain a fog-friendly mode. The adaptive high-beam is now capable of cutting a silhouette around other vehicles and road signs that dazzle. Improved infrared night-vision highlights pedestrians up to 160 metres away.