During the Toyota Technology Trip earlier in the year, where we tested the fourth generation Toyota Prius and were briefed on various new safety initiatives and features from Toyota, we were also given the opportunity to visit Toyota’s Higashi-Fuji Technical centre. It’s a facility that’s been around since the late 1960s, and from it came a great deal of Toyota’s safety technology and equipment. Higashi-Fuji is a fairly remote area, away from prying eyes, but even then most of the serious testing at the facility is conducted indoors.
Despite having to depart from our hotel early to make it to the facility on time, the program for the day seemed to be exciting. Rolling through the facility car park revealed an impressive number of sports cars, from Toyota GT86s to Fiat 500s- no doubt the personal cars of the engineers at the facility. When we were told that there would be no photography allowed during this portion of the trip, we didn’t know how serious they were; our mobile phones were confiscated and we were instructed to leave all photography equipment in the bus.
Of the many things housed in Higashi-Fuji, our tour focused on two main areas. One of these was the virtual reality driving simulator that Toyota uses to determine how drivers interact with their environment: where they look, how they move, and how they react to changing situations. It sports a 7-foot wide dome that sits on top of a platform which moves laterally and longitudinally to simulate motion, and even tilts to simulate cornering forces. It’s an impressive display of engineering and development of safety based on driver interaction, and Toyota will no doubt use it to test various anti-collision systems in the future.
But more exciting than this was a real life crash test. It’s rare that Toyota even lets people visit their centre, hence the high security, but to witness a crash test as it happens is a unique experience. The tests being conducted were specific to the current generation Prius, and the one we were to observe was something that isn’t strictly part of new car assessment programs for safety standards. In this test, the subject vehicle is kept static while a 2.5-tonne trolley is accelerated to 90 km/h to collide with the subject at a 15 degree angle, on a 35 percent overlap.
After a trio of lecture-like presentations (a brief journey back to college days), we were herded into a dark warehouse of sorts and directed up onto a viewing platform. In the middle of this warehouse, like a sacrificial goat, sat a pristine white Prius- entirely unaware of its impending doom. It’s a massive facility: even the lane used to accelerate the trolley up to speed stretches out of the main testing area, far out of sight. In the distance we can see various other cars half-cloaked in camouflage- although undeniably European products. If Toyota is benchmarking their products’ crash safety against the Europeans, this is definitely a good sign.
Up in some distant control room above the testing floor, the engineers prep for the crash test. Warning bells begin to ring and the distinct sound of something very quick and very heavy rolling along begins to grow louder. The testing trolley streaks into the room and collides with the Prius with a sickening crunch, sending the poor Prius hopping a fair distance away. The airbags have been deployed, the crash test dummies have been stirred, and a Prius has met the end of a fairly brief life. High speed cameras capture the crash blow-by-blow, but from where we stand it's over in the blink of an eye.
Within moments, a scrum of Toyota engineers comes scurrying out of the background, rushing over to the Prius to check for any potential hazards. A few of them sweep away some debris, while various parts are cordoned off. The Prius is checked for any fluid leaks as a result of the crash- something important when aiming to reduce the risk of potential fires during accidents. When the engineers were satisfied, an all-clear was given and we were allowed to walk on over and see the crashed car up close.
For hybrid vehicles, there have to be extra measures taken in crash safety. While the safety cell can stay intact, the hybrid electrical components must also not be damaged to the point of causing potential electrical hazards. The battery in particular must not be ruptured, and the engineers have specific methods to test whether the system is properly intact. They do this in addition to checking the deformation on each individual door, and downloading the data from the various crash test dummies in the car.
Thanks to various new car assessment programs, cars these days are safer than ever. Consumers have become increasingly informed on the importance of crash safety, and this means that manufacturers have to develop their products to stand up to these particular tests. While we weren’t provided with much more information about the findings, other than observing that the crumple zone and airbags worked, we can see that the Prius can take a proper hit without endangering its occupants.
The kind of investment that goes into this facility is tremendous, but it shows Toyota’s commitment to furthering the development of safety technology. To think that they began their journey with simply developing crumple zones and anti-lock braking systems at a time when people regarded their cars as “tin cans”, to the kind of world-class safety standards they have today- it’s definitely something they should be proud of. Perhaps in the future, autonomous driving may bring an entirely different set of challenges when it comes to safety- but whatever they may be, Toyota will likely be ready.