At the North American International Auto Show held in Detroit in early 2012, Toyota Motor Corp. exhibited a futuristic concept car from Lexus, its luxury car brand.
A crowd gathered to see the beautiful design with its bright red, low-slung body.
In the North American market, Lexus cars used to be criticized as a “good but boring car,” and Toyota was determined to change that perception.
The concept car received a great response, and Toyota President Akio Toyoda gave the green light for the development of the new LC sports coupe.
But there was one man who was not keen on the decision — Koji Sato. The car on display was essentially made from a sketch that had no technical basis for mass production.
Sato, who would later take charge of the development as chief engineer, returned to the firm’s headquarters in Toyota, Aichi Prefecture, and reviewed the plan with his technical team. They came to the conclusion that it was difficult to mass produce — at least in the way Toyota had been developing cars.
Normally, this would be a very exciting time for a chief engineer, as they would be in charge of the development of a new model.
“It’s impossible. I can’t do it,” he told Toyoda, thinking he could be fired.
“I know that,” Toyoda replied. “That just means you, the current you, can’t do it, right? You can’t do it because you think you can’t change. You have to start by changing yourselves. You can do it if you can change to become the person who can.”
Sato, now 51, still remembers that conversation he had with Toyoda.
“It was as if lightning had struck me,” he said, with the talk making him realize that he had set his own limits.
The LC sports coupe is a car that would not have been possible based on the standard way of thinking in Toyota’s engineering department, which is in charge of car manufacturing.
Sato had thought that his team wouldn’t be able to realize the LC’s innovative appearance through conventional car manufacturing.
But Toyoda pushed him beyond his limits.
“I’ll take responsibility if you fail,” Toyoda said. “Go for it.”
One thing Sato was determined not to compromise on was the engineering principles needed to make a good car — making it as light as possible, increasing its rigidity and controlling the appropriate weight distribution.
But other than that, Sato decided to abandon the received wisdom of the engineering department. Though there were times when the prototype car broke down, it was a continuous learning process for Sato and his team.
“When you fail, you know your limits, and when you push yourself to the limit, you find out what you can do better,” said Sato.
What was also important was to reflect Toyoda’s feedback as the “master driver” — the chief test driver — who checked the performance of the LC sports coupe in the final stages.
“There’s no sense of control,” Toyoda would say. “It doesn’t move smoothly.”
When he got behind the wheels of the prototype, Toyoda mumbled phrases, often intuitive comments. At first, the team didn’t have a clue as to what they should do to improve the design.
Nevertheless, as technology improved, enabling them to evaluate and modify the vehicle’s dynamic performance using data from onboard sensors, they were able to “connect the data with the master driver’s feedback based on their sensitivity.”
The new LC, with its unique design and high performance, hit dealerships in 2017. At its unveiling at the North American International Auto Show the previous year, Toyoda showed off the car.
“I can say with confidence that this is an exciting and amazing car,” he said.
Even after Sato finished the LC sports coupe project, he kept seeking advice from Toyoda.
At one point, Sato proposed changing the model of another car from rear-wheel drive (RWD) to front-wheel drive (FWD) to Toyoda.
The RWD system, which provides better handling, is more fun to drive and has been adopted in many sports cars and other models such as the Crown and Mark 2, gaining popularity among driving aficionados.
However, with the number of car enthusiasts on the decline, FWD cars, which are cheaper to produce, have become the mainstream.
Sato made the suggestion with profitability in mind, but Toyoda’s reaction was different, and rather shocking.
“I know it’s tough for business, but please don’t phase out RWD cars from the company while I’m the master driver,” said Toyoda. His words moved Sato and many other engineers.
The new model, which had been developed as an RWD model, was well received.
“If it hadn’t been for the president’s words, we would have taken a wrong turn,” Sato said.
Toyota’s chief engineers and ‘legendary’ managers
Toyota Motor Corp.’s vehicle development organization is divided into smaller divisions such as product planning, design and engineering but is collectively called the “engineering department.”
Under the supervision of chief engineers, one of whom is in charge of vehicle development for each car model, there is a team called Z that examines all kinds of parts and functions, including engines, bodies, controls and materials.
The engineering department does not technically exist within the organization. But while the overall size of the workforce for the department has not been disclosed, it is estimated there are about 10,000 workers.
As leaders on the ground, there are currently 19 chief engineers.
Although they do not have any personnel authority, they factor in costs from the development stage and work out concepts from scratch. At each stage up to commercialization, they have the authority to make proposals to senior management and are allowed to give each model its own unique feel.
What are now chief engineers used to be called project general managers at Toyota. In the past, there were people dubbed “legendary project general managers,” including Kenya Nakamura, who was in charge of the first model of the Crown brand, and Tatsuo Hasegawa, who oversaw the first model of the Corolla.
Hasegawa drafted a 10-point set of principles that, among others, says project general managers:
- should have a wide range of knowledge and wisdom
- should have their own principles
- should put in all of their ability and power for a good result
This guide has been handed to more or less every new project general manager over the years.
Akihiro Wada, 87, former Toyota vice president who previously worked under the two legends, recalls their work.
“We would learn details of the work under the project general manager, who would be thinking about the next model of the car and the one after.”
This section features topics and issues from the Chubu region covered by the Chunichi Shimbun. The original article was published April 6.
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