Toyota said last week that it is developing "pre-crash safety, intelligent technology" which can predict a crash and launch safety systems ahead of an impact.

A similar system was recently introduced by Mercedes-Benz for its flagship models.

Toyota said its pre-crash safety system recognises when a collision is going to happen. The timing involves just fractions of seconds, but that can be enough to prevent serious injury or even death.

The system comprises three core elements:

· The pre-crash sensor, a millimetre-wave radar that detects vehicles and obstacles ahead

· Pre-crash driver and front passenger seatbelts that retract as soon as a collision is identified

· Pre-crash brake assist which increases braking pressure as soon as the driver begins to depress the brake pedal

The radar is claimed to provide excellent object recognition, even in bad weather and darkness, and feeds information to a control unit equipped with software which determines whether a collision is going to take place on the basis of the course and speed of the vehicle, driver input in steering, throttle and braking, and the position, speed and course of any vehicles or obstacles ahead.

If an impact is judged to be inevitable, the pre-crash seatbelt retracts to provide the best possible restraint of the driver or passenger. As soon as the driver begins to apply the brakes, the pre-crash brake assist is activated, increasing brake pressure in line with the degree of pressure being exerted on the pedal.

Analysis of around 9,000 annual traffic-related fatalities in Japan revealed that, if pre-crash safety had been fitted to all vehicles, 1% of victims might have survived.

Pre-crash safety has been under development for 10 years as part of Toyota's wider Intelligent Transport Systems (ITS) research.  Elements of this which have already gone into service include a radar-based cruise control and blind corner monitoring, which gives the driver improved vision at junctions by relaying images from cameras mounted on the front bumper to a dashboard screen.

Toyota's ITS programme also embraces advanced navigation and public transport systems. Moves are also being made towards fully automatic driving with research into technology which automatically controls vehicle speed, direction and position in relation to other road users.

Toyota said the pre-crash safety system "could find its way into" a production vehicle before the end of 2003.