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Masters of disguise

Before premiere vehicles are unveiled at the IAA 2019, they take to the roads under camouflage.

For this reason the prototypes’ contours are covered in films bearing wild black-and-white zigzag patterns to protect them from curious gazes – of other manufacturers, journalists and the automotive paparazzi.

X marks the day

Exactly the same principle applies to classical combustion engines and modern electric drives: every component, every system of a vehicle has to provide absolute reliability. And to guarantee that, all the parts are subjected to extensive testing. Many tests can be carried out using virtual simulations or on the test bench. However, both of these options have their limits. Eventually all the results have to be validated and the “day X” arrives, when the prototypes are released into their natural habitat – the roads. But when the latest vehicle first leaves the heavily guarded development center for the test track or the public roads and completes its first few test kilometers, camouflage is essential. That is when the hunt is on. These prototypes are the heralds of new models that will not celebrate their public premieres until the IAA or some other event. And surprises are only possible if they are kept secret.

The A-Class of Mercedes-Benz in stealth mode - Copyright: Daimler AG
Gotcha! The A-Class of Mercedes-Benz in stealth mode - Copyright: Daimler AG

Nature shows the way

Camouflage is familiar to us from the animal world. Some species of prey use camouflage in earthy tones so that they blend with the natural background and become invisible to predators. Tigers and leopards, on the other hand, use patterns that break up their outlines when seen from a distance. Human beings also exploit these principles for the hunt. Modern camouflage was adapted by the military to make it as difficult as possible to recognize tanks, artillery and ships. The British artist Norman Wilkinson came up with the “dazzle” pattern consisting of black and white rectangles, which was used on many of the ships in the Royal Navy. Then as now, the irregular patterns were intended to make it difficult for cameras – and the human eye – to focus on the object. The result is not that the object cannot be seen, but that shapes and shadows are harder to recognize.

Hunters such as cheetahs are masters of camouflage
Hunters such as cheetahs are masters of camouflage

Packaging as an art form

In Germany a disguised prototype car is often called an “Erlkönig” – a name introduced by the renowned trade journal “auto motor und sport.” In the summer of 1952 it published the first photograph of a test vehicle under this name. The editor-in-chief at the time, Heinz-Ulrich Wieselmann, and his deputy Werner Oswald, published a photo of a Mercedes-Benz 180 that had been passed to the editors. Today we would find such harmless snapshots amusing, but back then they were distinctly provocative, because their publication meant that the general public – and therefore the competition – could see the secret test vehicles.

Competitors want to react to new developments as quickly as possible with innovations of their own, while the media are interested in boosting their circulation and click rates. Furthermore, they receive and increasing number of photos from amateurs who happen to be in the right place at the right time and take shots on their smartphones, which they then share on social media. And today even Photoshop-amateurs can use the latest software to edit their photos and create realistic pictures of the cars without camouflage. This means that in recent decades, protecting new body shapes from prying eyes has matured into a real art form in the automotive manufacturers’ development departments. Patches and zebra stripes, circles and diamonds, checks and swirls are all applied by experts. They cover the test vehicles with special patterned films that also stand up to extreme weather conditions.

Psychedelic black-and-white patterns distract the eye
Psychedelic black-and-white patterns distract the eye

Under wraps until the IAA

In some places on the bodywork the films are padded out, headlamps and rear lights are hidden, and windows are covered over. Even the interior is decked out with rubber mats and displays are masked with protective foils. But everything has to remain legal all the same. For example, the German inspection organization TÜV prescribes that light beams, brake lights and all other functional parts of the exterior have to conform to the legal regulations, even on prototypes. In addition, there are strict rules governing how prototypes are to be handled. Camouflaged test vehicles must not be parked in public places under any circumstances. And there must always be a tarpaulin in the vehicle. If the test vehicle has a breakdown or an accident, it must be covered up immediately. So if everything goes according to plan, the surprises will be perfect when the cars are unveiled at the IAA.

The slogan of the IAA 2019 is “Driving Tomorrow.” This year the exhibition focuses once again on megatrends such as electric mobility, and connected and automated driving. So it will be exciting to see what world premieres the IAA 2019 has in store. Order your ticket and enjoy the show.