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Aram Setian: The Benz Breaker

For Aram Setian, Dodging Tickets And Debugging Mercedes is all in a day's work
Jeffrey Zygmont
From the Print Edition:
Gina Gershon, Sep/Oct 98

A caravan of suspicious-looking vehicles was stopped in the searing heat of the concrete along I-10 just west of San Antonio. The state trooper had seen their peculiar plates--California testing permits taped to the rear windows--and decided to see what these strangers were up to.

Savvy negotiating skills are not ordinarily a primary part of an auto engineer's job requirements, but for Aram Setian, the man who road-tests Mercedes-Benz prototypes for a living, they come in handy from time to time.

Setian switched off the ignition on the advanced-model Benz, code-named W220, dangled the keys from his fingers, and invited the trooper to peer inside at the instrument cluster. Even at a dead stop, the speedometer still read 120 kilometers per hour, while the tach pegged engine speed at 3,000 rpm. The preponderance of evidence--all the gauges showed phantom readings and Setian could do nothing with the light switch to make the passenger-side headlamp shut off--seemed to support his claim that he and his team were testing

malfunctioning prototypes and were not part of some ominous alien expeditionary force.

The convoy of four new S-Class models, due out this year from the German automaker, had come to this grassy region of Hill Country where the Guadalupe and San Antonio rivers carve up a corner of the vast, central Texas plateau to see how the cars would stand up to summer temperatures that are considered benign at 100 degrees. The caravan, which had left Death Valley, California, a few days earlier, was motoring toward Houston so Setian and his colleagues could pit the cars' air conditioning against the region's remorseless heat and humidity.

The cars are probed, metered and analyzed every mile after punishing mile as they crisscross the United States. That's what Setian was doing when he got pulled over in Texas last summer. Some unknown element mysteriously interfered with the car's control computer, causing it to transmit false readings and errant commands even with the power off. That explanation should have been obvious enough, given the heap of electronic gear in the back seat, the meters, laptops, and data recorders, with a tangle of wires threaded throughout the cockpit, connecting the test equipment to sensors and probes and to the car's nerve center itself. Still, the Texas trooper was skeptical.

"He looked and looked but he couldn't find any violations," Setian says through a wide grin, entertaining himself with the recollection. "Finally he threw his hands up in the air and said, 'You guys win. I give up.'"

When the trooper drove off, Setian disconnected the test instruments, reset the car's computer and hooked up his equipment again, and the caravan resumed course toward the Gulf of Mexico.

Setian spends a lot of time leading excursions like this. He tests cars against every extreme of climate, terrain and roadway, assessing their performance, fine-tuning their design, looking for weak spots so the company can correct them before it begins selling new models to the motoring public. The Bulgaria-born Setian may drive German cars on technical missions, but he takes to the road with an American sense of pure adventure that would rival Jack Kerouac's.

Officially, Aram Setian is a senior staff engineer in the service engineering department of Mercedes-Benz of North America. That's the New Jersey-based subsidiary that markets cars for its German parent company, Daimler-Benz. The primary function of the service engineering department is to sort out the inner complexities of Mercedes models, in order to coach the American technicians who service and repair them. Setian has always been naturally suited for such work, as figuring out and fixing things are his ultimate satisfaction. As a kid in Bulgaria, he salvaged junk radio parts from an uncle's shop, hoarding them under his bed until he had enough pieces to put themtogether.

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