At the 2016 Toyota Technology Media Event that ended last week, the automaker launched its regional safety campaign for a third consecutive year. The campaign, titled Be Safety Leaders this year, was previously an effort for the ASEAN region, but has now been expanded to include India, Pakistan and four new Southwest Asian countries – Bhutan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal.

The Japanese giant, which ended last year as the world’s top carmaker in sales, also took the opportunity to highlight and demonstrate its safety efforts to media from Asia and the Middle East. The visit to Toyota’s Higashi-Fuji R&D Centre at the foot of Japan’s iconic mountain was a rare opportunity – it has been a couple of years since the facility last hosted a media visit, we were told.

Asia has been experiencing rapid motorisation in recent years, especially in developing markets with a growing middle class. Unfortunately, surging vehicle numbers have been accompanied by the rise in fatal traffic accidents, something that Malaysia is very familiar with.

In fact, our country was used by Toyota to highlight the seriousness of the problem – according to official data, for every 10,000 automobiles, there are 3.1 deaths in Malaysia, tied with Indonesia on that score and ahead of 2.8 deaths in Thailand. To compare with developed countries, the fatal accident rate is just 0.6 per 10k cars in Japan, or 0.5 in the UK.

To address this problem, Toyota – the market leader in most Asian countries – has developed a holistic approach to safety that it calls the “Integrated Three-Part Initiative”. The three elements of this philosophy are Vehicles, People and Traffic Environment, and the ultimate vision is zero traffic fatalities.

For “Traffic Environment”, the big T is working with governments to improve the infrastructure, while the “People” component is all about education, exemplified by the Be Safety Leaders campaign to get Asians to buckle up. “Vehicles” include Toyota’s pursuit of safety in its vehicles, from R&D to the actual safety features.

Toyota’s safety R&D philosophy can be explained in a cycle that starts with investigation and analysis into the causes of accidents and injuries via data. These accidents are then reenacted in various simulations to create tech to counter the issues. Experiments on actual full-scale vehicles are conducted before a model is launched, or before a car is updated.

The next stage is simulation, and we were given a brief introduction to the high-tech driving simulator at Higashi-Fuji. One of the most advanced of its kind, the simulator consists of a 7.1m diameter dome, with a real car inside it (the supplied pics show a Lexus LS, but an HS was on duty during our visit; no recording devices were allowed in the facility). The computer controlled dome sits on one of the world’s largest simulation platforms – it’s 35m high, 20m wide and has a turntable, tilt system and vibration actuator, among other devices.

All the above, plus a 360-degree spherical screen all around the car, combine to provide a highly realistic experience behind the wheel. Toyota had digitally mapped the town surrounding its facility, and this environment was the one that was played as we stood around the car as it was “driven” by a staffer.

I spotted a pretty lady coming out from Lawson (OK, I didn’t get that good a view), a Galant VR4 and an Evo, before we stopped to allow a child to cross the road. The man behind the wheel then intentionally “crashed” the Lexus into the back of an Alphard to end the brief session.

As this writer had his eyes fixed on the screen the whole time, it felt like a faithful enough simulation of real-world driving with equally real sounds, but I was surprised to later hear that the dome was stationary during our run – we didn’t get the full Motion Master experience due to an apparent lack of time. Someone who had her head looking at the ground in the dome confirmed the lack of movement – I can only imagine how real (and fun) it would have been with all systems turned on.

Higashi-Fuji’s driving simulator plays a main role in both driver behaviour analysis and system evaluation tests. Examples of the former are reduced awareness from drowsiness or distractions, and impaired driving (intoxication, illness). The results provide the basis for active safety tech, which is then verified again by the simulator.

We were also treated to a crash test conducted right under our noses, literally. Standing on a platform, we watched in shock as a fourth-generation Prius crashed into a vehicle trolley at 90 km/h. The latest hybrid smashed into the 2.5-tonne obstacle at a 15 degree angle, with 35% overlap.

This new oblique crash test format is more advanced than the usual frontal offset crash test, which is conducted at 64 km/h. Much higher speed aside, this new format crash test – which Toyota implemented last year – sees the tested vehicle impact the trolley at an angle and not in a straight line.

This internal test, an evolution of Toyota’s Global Outstanding Assessment (GOA), surpasses the level of the benchmark crash tests worldwide. For instance, the latest (upgraded in 2015) Euro NCAP ODB crash test sees a car driven into a deformable barrier at 64 km/h with 40% overlap. The test replicates a crash between two cars of the same weight, both travelling at a speed of 50 km/h. Needless to say, the new Prius aced Euro NCAP with the full five stars and a commendable adult occupant score of 92%.

After clearing the debris, we were allowed a closer inspection of the now deceased Prius. The front plastic bits were gone, the front wing on the impacted driver’s side was folded back, the bonnet folded in two and the windscreen cracked; but bits crucial to cabin integrity such as the A pillars and bulkhead appeared undeformed. While the driver’s door was slightly unhinged, all four doors could be opened without much effort, revealing fully deployed airbags. For such a severe impact, the Prius ended up impressively intact.

Some might have qualms about the electric safety of hybrid cars in a crash, but Toyota points out that since it started selling hybrids in 1997 (production had just crossed the 10 million mark), there have been no fatalities related to electric shock.

Efforts to protect occupants from high voltage components include the placement of the battery in a rigid area that’s not easily deformed (such as under the rear seats), and keeping the battery ungrounded in a crash. High voltage wires are isolated by a insulating coat cover. In the event of a crash, a relay blocks power supply. The airbag sensors and the hybrid system are connected, and a crash will instantly trigger all the battery/power supply safety measures. It’s a non-issue.

The crash tests work in concert with the THUMS family. Toyota’s Total Human Model for Safety is not a physical steel and rubber crash test dummy, but a virtual crash test dummy software. The regular dummy cannot simulate injury a human body suffers in a crash, which is why THUMS was developed by Toyota in 1997 – to understand injuries from vehicle accidents and to estimate the effectiveness of safety tech.

THUMS achieves accurate simulation by high-res CT scan images of living human subjects, finite element modelling of body parts, integration of the whole body model and definition of material property for each body part. To verify THUMS, Toyota conducts literature survey on impact biomechanics, loading tests on post mortem human subjects (yes, corpses), simulations of loading tests using THUMS and correlations in mechanical responses (force deflection). It’s complex stuff, done for every part of the body.

For every type of body, too. The THUMS family consists of a large male (189 cm tall), average male (179 cm), small female (153 cm), 10-year old child (138 cm), six-year old child (118 cm) and one that’s three years old (94 cm). There’s also an averaged sized female, a running child, an obese male (BMI 35) and a pregnant woman of seven months.

toyota thums v4 01

The first THUMS surfaced in 2000, followed by Version 2 in 2003, which added faces and bone structure to the virtual models. The third-gen came about in 2008, gaining a brain. In 2010, Version 4 was upgraded with detailed modeling of the brain and also the addition of internal organs and their placement and interaction within the body. Last year, V5 introduced simulated musculature, allowing the models to assume the bracing positions that a human might be in just before a crash.

THUMS is not just used by its creator, but is licensed to car companies and research institutes worldwide. Toyota says that as of June 2016, there are 81 organisations using the human model software across the globe.

One of the fruits of THUMS research outside Toyota is in the seat design requirement for NASCAR, the US race series that sees high speed lateral impacts to the wall at 70 G. THUMS is also used internally in the simulation of active safety systems (such as auto braking) and even to analyse the vibrations in ride comfort.

The scope and depth of R&D involved in the development of safety tech is impressive, and we were just scratching the surface in this day tour of Higashi-Fuji. The fruits of the many man-hours that go into developing passive and active safety tech is already in Toyota’s production cars, and we were brought to Mobilitas at Fuji Speedway to sample the effectiveness of Vehicle Stability Control (VSC) and Pre-Collision System (auto brake) that’s part of Toyota Safety Sense. They work as advertised.

On the local front, Toyota is moving in the right direction when it comes to active safety. The company’s most recent launch was for the Sienta, and the MPV has VSC as standard across the board. We understand that from now on, the skid-preventing safety feature will be present in all of the brand’s passenger car offerings in Malaysia, utilitarian budget models such as the Avanza aside.

While we look forward to more safety technology in our local range, let’s not forget that the basics, if practised religiously (or enforced strictly, which would be more effective IMHO) would definitely bring down Malaysia’s lofty position in the accident fatality table. Let’s drive in a safe and responsible manner, and remember to buckle up, whether in front or at the back. There’s no point in having all the safety tech in the world if we don’t use the one that has been around since 1959.