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Toyota's Star Safety System

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author photo by Autotrader May 2011

No matter how good or otherwise we think our parents and grandparents driving skills are (or were) somehow – probably from a mix of judgement and a little luck – they delivered us all to this point. In earlier times, cars were not so benign. They never had traction control or airbags. They even went around on grip-challenged tires. These days, while we’re trying to keep both eyes on the road and another on the brood in the back seats, our cars can lend a helping hand (or foot, more on that later) in so many ways.

Many high-tech automotive safety features have traditionally been found in luxury brands, like Mercedes-Benz and Volvo. With its Star Safety System, Toyota has been bringing the following features to a wider section of the driving population. It is the first full-line auto manufacturer to offer them all as standard in every one of its new vehicles.

Brian Lyons, safety and quality communications manager for Toyota Motor Sales, USA, describes this technical umbrella as “a sophisticated computer-controlled driver assistance system, designed to help the driver remain in control of the vehicle and avoid potential collisions. Using a variety of advanced technologies, it detects, judges and reacts to perceived collision scenarios.”

Here’s a run-down of what it does:

Vehicle stability control

Imagine driving into a corner; a right-hander, for example. Just as the wheels turn, the car encounters a patch of oil or ice. Suddenly, there’s no grip and the car veers uncontrollably toward the other side of the road. Vehicle stability control (VSC) monitors the angle of the steering wheel and the direction of the car. By reducing power to the engine and applying whichever brakes are necessary, VSC keeps everything pointed in the proper direction.

Traction control

This is VSC’s close relative. It’s particularly useful in snowy conditions. Whenever there is wheelspin, traction control applies brakes and cuts engine power, and can send remaining power to the wheel or wheels with the most grip.

Anti-lock brake system

One of the great yet largely unsung heroes of modern driving is anti-lock brakes (ABS). We will never know how many (ABS) has bailed Joe Driver out of a sticky situation. He might be driving along without a care in the world when a washing machine tumbles from the flatbed truck in front. His reflex is to brake hard and steer away from the hazard at the same time. If the wheels lock up, he would have no steering control and just plow forward, carried by momentum. The anti-lock system can pulse braking energy many times a second, far beyond the capability of any human. This quick “apply and release” action keeps the wheels turning while still slowing things down. But the crucial aspect is that Joe has retained the ability to steer.

Brake assist

Even heroes need help sometimes. Toyota’s Star Safety System also includes brake assist. Our human reaction times are often too slow to apply the appropriate amount of braking power, but brake assist (BA) detects sudden braking and acts as a virtual right foot within milliseconds, helping to apply the brakes with as much force as possible.

Electronic brake force distribution

As we know, power is nothing without control, and that applies to braking power too. We have all experienced that sudden “dip” forward when an emergency calls for the brakes to be stepped on. That dip puts a lot of weight on the front wheels and takes it away from the rear. Electronic brake force distribution (EBD), as its name suggests, evens out that energy. Sensors can also tell if there is a heavy load in the trunk, allowing the system to take this into account. And it all happens in the blink of an eye.

Smart Stop

The features above can be found on many cars of many marques, but Toyota/Lexus has one other advantage: Smart Stop. In the heat of the moment, people can get confused, maybe press both pedals at once without meaning to. If that happens in a Toyota or a Lexus, the brakes will override the throttle, bringing the car to a controlled speed or a full stop, as required.

The Star Safety System wraps all these features into one network. “The system uses sensors at each wheel and feeds information to a central computer,” said Lyons. “If the speed of any wheel deviates from the others – such as one spinning on ice or another locking up during an emergency stop – then the system reacts by applying brake pressure to individual wheels and in some cases reducing engine power to help the driver maintain control.”

In Lexus vehicles, other features are available, such as adaptive headlamps. These can turn as a car turns, illuminating corners more efficiently than conventional lights. Even a split second’s notice could save the life of a pedestrian walking in the dark.

Functions like VSC are also taken up a notch, offering different levels of intervention. This can be a boon for the enthusiast who relishes the idea of being able to recover from a loss of grip with driver input before the computers kick in. But such systems will always be programmed to offer the greatest amount of protection for the greatest number of users; few people have the ability or the inclination to test the dynamic limits of their cars, especially when loved ones are on board.

One day, our children might thank us for our driving skills. Or they may just be grateful for our choice of car.

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Toyota's Star Safety System - Autotrader