Toyota’s 'trigger' for innovation

  • 24-Mar-2016 11:16 EDT
Nakao TTC.JPG

Seiya Nakao: "We will expedite collaborations" in advanced mobility technologies.

SAE is the ‘engineers’ foundation,’” reflected Seiya Nakao. “When I was a young engineer, we learned a lot from SAE, and personally this is a good opportunity for me to return something to it.” Nakao, President of the 1M-ft2 Toyota Technical Center (TTC) near Saline, MI, is serving as General Chairman of the SAE 2016 World Congress and Exhibition. He is clearly excited about his company’s leadership role in the event and the 100 technical papers being presented by Toyota. Nakao believes this year’s World Congress, and its “Powering Possibilities” theme, will serve as a “trigger” for new innovation. Automotive Engineering spoke with Nakao-san recently at TTC; an excerpt from our interview follows:

What is your own vision of mobility in the next 30 years?

I believe in variety. There should be a lot of options for people to choose; driving by themselves, autonomous vehicles, car sharing. But while in the next 25-30 years we will still have gasoline hybrids and PHEVs, this will be a very important transition time for fuel cell and electric vehicles. And it will be hugely exciting for new technology.

TTC is undergoing a big expansion. What role will TTC play in the new mobility era?

Our main job here consists of two ‘pillars:’ vehicle development and cutting-edge technology and research. So while we evolve the current technologies such as hybrid, we also have to develop or invent new solutions—longer-range batteries and affordable fuel cell system. And, of course, infrastructure.

Will TTC take on more of a core vehicle-development role?

In vehicle development we’re now doing U.S.-exclusive product such as Avalon and Tundra. But in the coming years, in my opinion, we will take a main role in full vehicle development, such as the ‘K’ platform [Camry]. That kind of shift in responsibility will happen, I believe. And on the Research side, we created the new Toyota Research Institute (TRI), a company that researches artificial intelligence along with other advanced disciplines (http://articles.sae.org/14546/). That technology is used to create autonomous vehicles, and we believe it should definitely be led by us. And other cutting-edge technologies such as battery systems—the U.S.A. is the best place for research in these areas.

Are you confident there will be a battery “breakthrough,” as the battery guys keep promising?

Should I answer that officially or personally? [laughs] Actually, I hope so. But my personal impression is, I haven’t seen good progress in this area. It’s kind of struggling point for Toyota. But we don’t give up; we’re aggressively developing these technologies.

How will Toyota’s recent reorganization impact product development?

We’re now producing 10 million vehicles per year. But our organizational structure was stuck where it was 30 years ago. We had many [silos] that prevented cross-functional engagement and quick decision making. That’s why Akio Toyoda decided to make the change. His purpose is very clear: quick decisions! So we destroyed the old [highly centralized] organization and created what are essentially four product-based divisions.

What do the Production guys—the traditional "core" of Toyota and key to its profitability—have to say about this?

The Toyota Production System is very efficient and low cost—great system. But, unfortunately, Production became too strong! So we have the new idea. We will start the new system April 18, officially.

How are things going so far?

[chuckles] Not so perfect! But we will improve that through kaizen. As Akio Toyoda said, ‘This is not a solution. It is an opportunity.’

Toyota in recent years has collaborated with Fuji Heavy, Mercedes, Tesla, Ford, and Mazda. Are technology and product-development partnering now vital activities?

They are necessary, especially for autonomous and connected-vehicle technology developments. The speed of new developments in those areas is so fast—faster than I expected. If we tried to do it by ourselves, we couldn’t catch up. That’s why we are doing a lot with academia, with a lot of fine universities, and even with government. But even that’s not enough. So we will expedite the collaborations.

If Google or Apple came to you wanting Toyota to build their cars, would that be an interesting proposition?

Oh, yeah! [laughs] Internally we are discussing a lot. The smartphone is kind of the de facto standard already, and if we ignore it, the customer isn’t satisfied. So we have to seriously think of how to collaborate with them [tech companies].

Do you see changes coming in the automotive engineering profession?

We need to develop new talent in autonomous driving, artificial intelligence, computer science, robotic science, advanced battery chemistry, nanotechnology. Or hire them. In my opinion, the foundation is still mechanical engineering, but some young engineers see that as being ‘old-fashioned stuff.’ We have to change the job’s style! I definitely see the future automotive engineer having a combination of mechanical, electrical/electronic, and computer-science engineering competencies.

Are you worried that young professionals no longer stay with the same company for very long?

Yes. The highest turnover ratio in our systems is probably five to seven years’ experience.

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