This is the place new cars come to die… to give you a better chance of living through a car crash
Higashi-Fuji, Japan — There’s a huge car crash here every day. But because there are no horrifying injuries involved, each smash isn’t terrifying but actually kinda awesome.
Welcome to Toyota’s Higashi-Fuji Technical Center. 4,500 people toil here on future cars, artificial intelligence, technology we haven’t heard of yet and of course, safety. They must all be Secret Squirrels, because the whole time we were here we never saw more than a dozen or so people.
Toyota spent more than one trillion Yen (S$13.1 billion) last year on R&D, so the work at Higashi-Fuji is obviously dead serious.
The facility is literally at the foot of Mount Fuji, and is the kind of place where they confiscate your mobile phone before they let you in. They don’t want you snooping, let alone capturing an image of a self-driving Corolla rolling past a flying Camry.
Given the terrible things they do to crash test dummies, these are people you don’t want to mess with anyway.
Toyota let CarBuyer in to let us watch them crash a spanking new Toyota Prius. That might sound like an exercise in heart pain (and it is) but crash-testing is literally an everyday affair. Around 600 cars are smashed up by Toyota here every year.
And that’s just at Higashi-Fuji, mind you. Another 1,000 vehicles are crash-tested in other Toyota safety centres around the world in any given year.
Every kind of vehicle comes here to meet its demise, from the tiny i-Road to Toyota’s biggest models, like the US-only Tundra or Sequoia monsters. Even lorries like the Toyota Dyna end up against the barrier here.
Of course, all car makers crash test their products, but what’s interesting about Toyota is that the engineers at Higashi-Fuji have come up with a new protocol. It involves a test that’s much more stringent than current safety requirements.
Standard testing calls for a frontal smash into a deformable barrier that overlaps with 40 percent of the width of the car, at 64km/h.
Toyota showed us a new crash with the Prius that’s 1.35 times worse than that.
It involves a 2.5-tonne trolley at 90km/h being launched into the test car at a 15-degree angle. That’s like being rammed into by a Bentley cruising down the ECP.
The results are pretty impressive. After you get over the awe of seeing a Toyota Prius sent flying by the impact, the first thing you think is, “I’m glad I wasn’t sitting in that car.”
It turns out the crash test dummies who were in the Prius registered impact forces that would have resulted in injury, but not death.
What’s more impressive is that the Prius didn’t show any electrical leakage from the high-voltage battery in its hybrid system (there’s never actually been a recorded injury caused by batteries from any of the 9 million hybrids Toyota has sold) — we watched engineers check for electric voltage between the plus and minus terminals of the wiring harness.
After a crash test, engineers also look for fluid leaks. Sometimes oil will spill from a broken engine, but that doesn’t ignite so it’s not a problem. They also fill the gas tank with a fuel that has the same characteristics as petrol, but isn’t as flammable. Again, nothing to worry about from the Prius.
Having sussed out that they weren’t about to have their eyebrows singed by a nasty electrical jolt, the engineers next opened the car’s front doors as a simple check of cabin integrity. That’s important because the first thing you want to do after a wreck is to get out of it. If only so you can argue with the other driver about whose fault it was.
All this is good to know because the Prius is built off the Toyota New Global Architecture, the physical platform the company is using for practically all of its future models.
If the first TNGA car holds up this well under a 90km/h crash, then the next generation of Toyotas is likely to be just as sturdy.
That’s something to keep in mind when you’re driving in Singapore. It might seem like mayhem out on the roads sometimes, but your chances of surviving it are much better than ever thanks to what goes on behind the closed doors of places like Higashi-Fuji.
Toyota’s THUMS up approach to crash testing
THE EARLIEST DAYS of crash testing involved some grisly work. Carmakers would wire sensors into dead bodies and strap them into test cars.
Crash test dummies are now the norm, but they’re expensive. The models made by a company called Humanetics can cost up to a hundred million Yen (S$1.32m) for one called THOR, purpose-built for side-impact testing. There are 15 of those in the Higashi-Fuji R&D centre’s crash test building.
The more common HYBRID III model, used most frequently for frontal impacts, costs “only” 18 million Yen, but Toyota has 80 dummies at Higashi-Fuji in total, so you can imagine the sums involved.
They need maintenance, too. Toyota says its dummies are inspected before every crash test, and have to be given a more careful examination after 10 collisions.
But what ruffles safety engineers’ feathers most about crash test dummies is that they’re not actually that good. “A dummy cannot simulate injury of the human body in an actual vehicle collision,” says Yuichi Kitagawa, an engineer from Toyota’s advanced computer-aided engineering division. “It has to be strong enough to not be destroyed during a crash.”
The Humanetics dummies have have steel in place of bones, and their necks are made of rubber. Believe it or not, a dummy made of software code gets the job done much better.
Carmakers have simulated impact tests on computers for years, but Toyota decided to “build” a virtual human body. The first version was launched in 2000 after 3 years of coding work.
It’s called THUMS (for Total HUman Model for Safety), and now comprises a family of 10 different people — everything from a typical adult male to a pregnant woman, complete with foetus.
Essentially, you can put a THUMS person into a virtual car, subject it to a virtual crash test, and end up with an accurate reading of what would happen to a real person, right down to brain, ligament and internal organ injury.
Officials from NASCAR, the most popular racing series in America, were stumped by why its race drivers suffered a high number of rib fractures even though they were well-protected in the cars. So they used a THUMS model to investigate a new chest support system.
It worked so well, says Kitagawa, that the NASCAR rulebook added the chest support requirement to driver seat design.
THUMS is also useful in scenarios where dummies won’t work. What happens, for example, when a motorcycle crashes into a car? “A motorcycle is unstable without a rider, so it’s difficult to conduct crash tests,” says Kitagawa.
In fact, the software is so good that other carmakers use THUMS, too. Around the world there are 81 users (25 carmakers and 56 research institutes) who pay a licence for the software. Toyota won’t say how much it costs, but the research institutes pay less.
Ultimately, collision testing has simply come full circle with THUMS. The information used to code the virtual bodies was based on third-party research that investigated the effects of impacts on various parts of human cadavers (or what Toyota calls “post mortem human subjects”).
In other words, someone, somewhere dropped a weight on a dead person’s head and wrote a paper on what happened (it was Nahum et al., 1977, and it was 6.5kg at 6.3 metres-per-second).
Toyota used studies like that to create a neat way for safety engineers to come up with a body of useful data, without having to work with actual bodies.