Encounters – Women of the Star
Nov 30, 2011
Dr Doris Bernhardt, Project Manager Car Development
Passion. The Birth of a New Star.
Her world revolves around the stars of the future – and her attention is focused in particular on the ‘Little Dipper’ constellation. Over recent years, Dr Doris Bernhardt has been responsible for the emergence of the new generation of Mercedes-Benz compact cars: the new B-Class, available since November 2011. As head of the testing department, she was the ‘mother’ of the secret ‘test mules’, as the prototypes of new models are known.
Doris Bernhardt has been at home in the world of automotive development for 20 years, carving out a reputation for herself in the industry as an experienced project manager. Mercedes-Benz recruited her to work in its passenger car development department at the Sindelfingen plant in 2008. Her first project was a very special challenge: working on the development of the completely redesigned B-Class.
Working in the complete vehicle testing department for the A-/B-Class, the materials engineering graduate assumed responsibility for an already established team of 25 men, none of whom had had a woman boss before. Any initial concerns were quickly allayed. “The boys were just great. They accepted me straight away and supported me in every respect,” Doris Bernhardt says enthusiastically. A likeable woman, she combines ambition and commitment with a calm, composed and confident approach.
Testing prototypes from the customer’s point of view
For almost three years, she has been testing the prototypes and pre-production models for the new B-Class with her team. During that time, she has looked at every aspect through the eyes of potential customers. “In the test workshop we look at new vehicles, from the development stage through to production readiness, purely from the customer perspective. We then also approve them from the same perspective,” explains Bernhardt, a native of Freudenstadt in the Black Forest. “From the driving experience, handling and comfort through to perceived quality, we test and evaluate everything to ensure that the needs and requirements of future buyers are met.”
Activities range from testing the engines and transmissions, and checking the suspension comfort, safety assistance systems and air conditioning, to analysing ergonomic aspects such as accessibility of controls and noise levels inside the vehicle.
The goal: perfection down to the smallest detail
On the test rigs at the Mercedes Technology Center (MTC) in Sindelfingen, for instance, the body and chassis of the B-Class were subjected to the most rigorous tests, which simulated the demands over the complete vehicle life in a period of just a few weeks. Powerful forces shook and rattled the body and pulled on the axles, giving the impression that the vehicle would burst at any moment. “The test results show at an early development phase the level of stress at which damage occurs, and at which points too much or too little material has been used on the body,” explains the test leader.
Equally relentless were the systematic long-distance trials in everyday traffic and on test routes. Doris Bernhardt sent the prototypes draped in sheets all over the world for continuous testing under various climatic and road conditions. The engines, for instance, were tested in South Africa, the air conditioning systems under extreme temperatures in the baking hot US state of Texas and Sweden’s cold north, the chassis at a test facility in northern Germany, and part of the electrics and electronics in Japan. The B-Class test mules travelled around eight million kilometres on motorways, country roads, gravel tracks and snow-covered pistes, as well as in slow-moving urban traffic. Some of the test drives were completed by Bernhardt herself.
Every single kilometre was precisely documented. Hundreds of sensors on board the test vehicles analysed the technology in scrupulous detail. Recording temperatures, pressure levels, voltages and engine speeds, they provided a myriad of measurement data that the 50-year-old department head forwarded to the development engineers for further analysis.
And the verdict? “The new B-Class is a successful premium vehicle in the compact category in every respect,” Bernhardt states proudly. “With its new engines, transmissions and assistant systems, it signals the start of a new technological era for compact cars at Mercedes-Benz. Customers will benefit from low fuel consumption and CO2 emissions, as well as even greater driving pleasure, even more space and high-quality comfort in the interior, and even better safety.”
“There’s a little bit of Mercedes-Benz in every vehicle today”
The B-Class is the first compact car in the world to be equipped as standard with a radar-assisted collision warning system with adaptive brake assist, which reduces the risk of a nose-to-tail collision in all traffic situations. Customers can choose from a total of twelve safety systems which have been adopted for the B-Class from larger models –from Active Blind Spot Assist and Lane Keeping Assist through to the tiredness detection system ATTENTION ASSIST and Speed Limit Assist which identifies road signs, to the preventive occupant safety system PRE-SAFE®. Each of these innovative ‘electronic assistant drivers’ represents an important step towards achieving the vision of ‘accident-free driving’ pursued rigorously by Mercedes-Benz.
“No other automotive brand is investing so much effort in the area of vehicle safety or has brought so many decisive innovations onto the market as the company that invented the automobile,” says Bernhardt. Many of the innovations introduced by Mercedes-Benz have established themselves as standard industry practice, from the rigid passenger compartment and the ABS anti-lock braking system to the ESP® Electronic Stability Program. “You could say there’s a little bit of Mercedes-Benz in every vehicle today.”
When asked what else Mercedes-Benz could come up with apart from safety and drive technology, she hit upon an idea straight away: “An automatic boot lid opening that recognises me through a sensor or my voice and opens the lid without me having to put my bags down,” she says laughing. This is something that Mercedes-Benz is already working on, showing once again that the inventor of the automobile places great importance on little details that make drivers’ lives easier and more enjoyable.
Her pet subject is inorganic chemistry
Doris Bernhardt is a woman with a particular passion for technology and science. Since school she has pursued her goals with great determination. When she unexpectedly received a special award for her final examination in Chemistry, she thought, “If that’s the case, then perhaps I should continue to develop this talent of mine.” She studied mineralogy in Karlsruhe, specialising in physical chemistry and materials science. After completing her doctorate at the Max Planck Institute for Metal Research in Stuttgart, she faced a choice: chemical industry or automotive industry? She found the decision easy. She had always had a special affinity with cars, even when she was a child. She grew up in a world where terms such as engine speed, horsepower and displacement were commonplace. “My father was a devoted car enthusiast and that probably had an influence on me,” she confesses.
Self-confident and always open to new things, she quickly established a career for herself in the automotive sector, initially working as a materials engineer in the laboratory and then as a project manager. Her desire for new experiences and her enjoyment of work are what drove her to succeed. Although she cannot imagine going back to work in the laboratory, she still has a keen interest in inorganic chemistry. “I still read plenty of specialist publications; it’s simply an incredibly exciting field.”
Crime novels and theatre as a distraction from everyday life
In her spare time she likes to relax by immersing herself in completely different worlds. She loves reading crime novels and is an avid theatre and musical fan. Sadly however, there’s usually not much time left for cultural pursuits. If she had one wish in the world, it would be to come back for a day in 100 years’ time to see what technological progress has been made. “I would like to know how people are getting around then, how they are living and what they are eating, whether they have really made significant progress or whether they’ve actually taken a step backwards,” the scientist reflects, and she’d be happy to go on to have an interesting discussion about progress, the future and the possibility of the existence of life on other planets.
She is personally helping to shape the immediate future, when it comes to drivers and Mercedes-Benz at least – as a project manager for other new stars in the compact segment. She’s not prepared to reveal any more than that.
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