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There are a couple of minor quibbles and errors I wouldn't have expected from Hans Greimel of Automotive News, but this is nonetheless an interesting and informative read:
http://www.autonews.com/article/20180326/OEM02/180329837/toyota-truck-translator-mike-sweers?utm_source=dlvr.it&utm_medium=twitterToyota's truck translator
March 26, 2018 - Hans Greimel
TOYOTA CITY, Japan — Toyota's truck guy in Japan, Michigan transplant Mike Sweers, looks straight out of central casting as he struts across the Toyota City technical center campus in his close-cropped goatee, auto-tinting eyeglasses and black cowboy boots.
If there were any doubt about his macho 4x4 credentials, Sweers insists he had never even sat in a Prius until being transferred to Japan last year. In fact, the hybrid's noiseless push-button ignition baffled him so much that he repeatedly pushed it thinking something was wrong.
Sweers is lead engineer for the full-size Tundra and midsize Tacoma pickups, and Sequoia, 4Runner and FJ Cruiser SUV nameplates. He was brought to Toyota headquarters to help design their next-generation platforms with one mission in mind: Ensure Japanese engineers fully fathom the uniquely American mania for his beloved trucks.
"It's difficult for them to understand," Sweers said in a Feb. 15 interview at the global nerve center here. "I see my role as being a bridge to help Toyota Motor Corp. understand the North American truck requirement. Having that North American voice is important."
Japan's biggest automaker is injecting more American voice than ever as it tries to nail the make-or-break next-generation truck platform due as early as next year.
Sweers, a 28-year Toyota veteran who still has a family farm near Lansing, Mich., arrived in Japan in June 2017 for a two-year assignment. It wasn't long before he was promoted to executive general manager, a post straddling the executive suite and lab floor.
He oversees a team of 42 Americans, one of the biggest ever, all flown to Japan to Americanize Toyota trucks. The stakes are high for the 54-year-old — and Toyota.
Toyota must defend the Tacoma's position as top-seller in the midsize pickup segment amid an onslaught of new entrants. It must make the Tundra a real rival to the all-but-unassailable Detroit 3 offerings, the Ford F-150, Chevrolet Silverado and Ram pickup. And Toyota must make the body-on-frame SUVs viable options in an age of ever-more stringent fuel economy.
What's more, its engineers must develop a platform that factors in the disruptive trends of electrification, connectivity and autonomous driving for, yes, lumbering trucks.
"We have tons of engineering challenges ahead of us in the truck and large SUV market," Sweers said. "You're going to see trucks change faster than you've ever seen trucks change."
The redesigned Tundra, Tacoma, Sequoia and 4Runner will ride on the Toyota New Global Architecture. The automaker is launching the so-called TNGA modular vehicle platform around the world, one segment at a time. It has been introduced in the Prius hybrid and Camry sedan and will yield cars and trucks that are lighter and simpler to build and modify.
Sweers declined to say when the TNGA truck platform will arrive, but a redesigned Tundra full-size pickup could land as early as next year, some five years after its last model change.
A top goal for trucks is consolidating components and cutting the number of platforms while better tailoring models to regional needs. Toyota must reinvent the lineup to be greener, while keeping the power, functionality and rugged looks demanded by truck fans.
But Toyota's biggest challenge is something more intangible.
"It still has the image of a 'foreign' automaker with many truck shoppers," said Karl Brauer, executive publisher of Autotrader and Kelley Blue Book. "Toyota needs to catch up in this area."
In trucks, the Japanese struggle with the emotional aspect of vehicle design, he said.
"Everything from styling to engine note to interior design and ride and handling has a subtle emotional aspect. Having the input of U.S. truck experts should help Toyota zero in on these elements," Brauer said. "Understanding your target audience is always critical to success."
Sweers is the first to admit plenty can get lost in translation.
Pickups of any size are rarities in Japan. When the odd F-150 or Ram rumbles down a tight Tokyo street, always a gray-market import, it stands out like an elephant on a putting green.
Developing one is as foreign to Japanese engineers as devising a Japan-market minicar, with its refrigerator-box dimensions and tiny 0.66-liter engine, would be for an American, Sweers said.
It's the little things Japanese engineers miss, like the gap between the tailgate and fender.
"When the tailgate goes down, and you're hauling loose material in the back, this beautiful fit and finish back here looks great until you fill the tailgate lip with material and you close it," Sweers said. "It damages the tailgate and now you have a very upset customer."
Or consider the notion that an American might fill his truck with mulch by day, then take his wife to dinner at a classy restaurant that night in the same vehicle.
"No one here can comprehend such a thing: 'You put your wife in a truck you worked in today?' " he said. "When you say it out loud it even sounds kind of strange."
The TGNA truck platform, he said, will focus on commonization with flexibility.
Toyota has four truck platforms, but that number will be reduced, he said. The Tundra, for instance, has 11 frames, and engineers are looking at ways to whittle those down.
Beyond that, Sweers is mostly mum on details about the undertaking, including the fate of the aging 5.7-liter V-8 engine introduced to the Tundra in the 2007 model year.
But a key calculus will be improving fuel economy without sacrificing such V-8 power.
Toyota's strategy targets several fronts, including lightweighting, rolling resistance and aerodynamics. But Sweers says the biggest, quickest gains can come from more air-slicing designs.
He points to the tiny aerofins that protrude from the side taillights on the Tacoma and Tundra as innocuous tweaks that deliver big gains in aerodynamics and stability. But more dramatic changes, such as lowering the front bumper, run the risk of messing with the overall package.
Toyota trucks must preserve ground clearance, approach angles and maintain that rugged truck look.
"How do you make a badass truck that cuts through the air? The two are on opposite ends," Sweers said. "Everything a truck guy wants is anti-aerodynamic."
Electrification is also in the mix, following President Akio Toyoda's directive to go green. Sweers is cagey about details. But Toyota, he pledged, won't sacrifice power for fuel economy. "It won't be a pure eco play," he said. "The worst thing you can do is buy an underpowered truck."
Electrification will bring additional functionality, he said, suggesting an extension of the crawl control feature that takes the truck up or down even the gnarliest terrain.
To beef up its all-wheel-drive credentials, Toyota introduced two technologies in February that target better fuel efficiency, stability and off-road performance. The first, called dynamic torque vectoring awd, is geared toward gasoline vehicles and channels torque independently to the right and left wheels for better handling.
Another version for hybrids, called E-Four, delivers 30 percent more torque to the rear wheels compared with Toyota's current awd setup for hybrids.
In a sign that Toyota may be gearing up for electrified trucks, Toyoda appointed none other than Satoshi Ogiso as president of the CV Company, an in-house company at Toyota responsible for trucks and commercial vehicles. Ogiso, 57, rose to prominence for his work at the hybrid division in developing the Prius. Few engineers at Toyota know the intricacies of electrification better.
"A once-in-a-century change is occurring and we have to factor in the technology," Ogiso said at a news conference in February, noting that electrification was a feature that would have to be better incorporated into trucks. "We'd like to take advantage of that change."
The CV Company was split off as a self-standing subcompany in April 2016, as part of Toyoda's push to create smaller, nimbler units capable of quick decision-making.
Sweers credits its creation for triggering a Toyota truck renaissance.
"By breaking the companies up, we can be more focused on what we're doing," he said. "I'm not competing anymore with every other domestic and overseas project to get funding to do my job and to get engineers to do my job. It's a huge difference."
The trick will be transcending the Japan-America cultural divide, which still runs deep.
Soon after arriving in Toyota City, Sweers checked with the motor pool for a company car.
Or in his case, he hoped, a truck. Maybe an old-school Hilux pickup or Prado SUV.
The conversation immediately veered off track when the body-on-frame purist was offered a unibody Highlander instead.
"A Highlander is not an SUV," Sweers recalled with true truck guy scorn. Negotiations only devolved from there, to being offered the choice of — gulp! — a Corolla or Prius.
Sweers begrudgingly took the Prius, thinking: "Literally, I've never sat in a Prius in my life."
Only after they dropped it off at his home did the fun begin with the silent push-button start.
"I'm in the middle of the apartment driveway, and I can't get this vehicle to start. It took me by surprise," Sweers said. "It's a fine car. But I drive a 5.7-liter V-8 with 381 horses. When you turn the key, you know something is happening. I miss my V-8."