Toyota's American truck guy's stint in Japan

Joaquin Ruhi

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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:

Toyota'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."

Badass trucks

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."



Culture gap

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."
http://www.autonews.com/article/20180326/OEM02/180329837/toyota-truck-translator-mike-sweers?utm_source=dlvr.it&utm_medium=twitter
 

Gecko

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Great read. Honestly, many of the Toyota truck faithful are not big fans of Mike Sweers due to the weak Tacoma "redesign" and the Tundra refresh only being skin deep, but he has some good points here. I look forward to seeing the first TNGA BOF vehicle... but most importantly... the 4Runner :)
 

Joaquin Ruhi

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I forgot to quote and note a sidebar to the article above:

Mike Sweers: Toyota's man from Truckland
  • Title: Executive general manager, CV Company
  • Age: 54
  • Nationality: U.S.
  • Education: B.S. in mechanical engineering, University of Detroit
  • Joined Toyota: 1990
  • Family: 3 daughters
  • Project portfolio: Tundra, Tacoma, Sequoia, 4Runner, FJ Cruiser
  • Before Toyota: Worked at Chrysler Corp. and General Motors' Oldsmobile Division
  • Big Break: Becoming Tundra chief engineer in 2010
  • Wheels in Japan: No “trucks.” First a Prius, next a Harrier, then a C-HR
  • On future of trucks: “Now that trucks are socially acceptable to be the primary vehicle in the family, I just think the truck guys are going to take over the world. That's my evil plan.”
  • On love for trucks: “I have a lot of passion for trucks. I consider myself a truck guy. I grew up with trucks. I learned to drive on trucks. Everybody in my family drives trucks. We enjoy trucks.”
  • On the joy of engineering: “You want to motivate me, tell me it can't be done, and I will do that job. This is what engineers live to do.”
 

CIF

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An excellent read, full of fascinating info.

Something rarely discussed at all is Toyota's move a couple of years ago to create distinct "subcompanies" within Toyota Motor Co to further consolidate development of different vehicle types, and increase collaboration and move away from "chimney development" as Akio Toyoda calls it, or silo development in other words, where different departments weren't taking or communicating with each other.

The CV company, or 'Commercial Vehicle' company going into the future is responsible for SUVs, trucks, minivans, and commercial vehicles. So very interesting, as this means the CV company is in charge of 4th gen Sienna development.

Some fascinating info I got from this link:
https://newsroom.toyota.co.jp/en/detail/14611640

The CV Company significantly is now joined directly with Toyota Auto Body, which is quite famous for helping manufacturing various generations of the Land Cruiser. Also looking at some of the diagrams, a TNGA Hilux is confirmed. Not only that, one diagram hints at the Tacoma and Hilux sharing a TNGA platform in the future. This would be something, as currently the Tacoma and Hilux are on distinct, different platforms. Also interesting that one diagram shows an expansion of the 'CV' lineup. Does that mean we'll see more body-on-frame models from Toyota? It's a possibility it seems.

Then there's this significant quote:
Keiji Masui: CV Company said:
Until now, it has been difficult for commercial vehicles to gain attention due to the overall order of priorities at Toyota. This also means we have not necessarily been able to enhance our products in a timely fashion.

In the future, we will drive development in accordance with the company's priorities, albeit with pre-requisites which we need to adhere to. It is due to the very fact that because our vehicles aid our customers in the conduct of their daily lives that I want our company to steadily enhance our products. The new Coaster which we're announcing today is the model's first complete redesign in 24 years. It will be the first vehicle representing our push for timely product enhancement.
We as automotive and/or Toyota enthusiasts are well aware of how ignored and ancient most of Toyota's current body-on-frame products are. This quote basically admits that body-on-frame and commercial vehicles were low priority at Toyota, but apparently no longer. Let's hope this means proper resources are now available for the CV company to provide some overdue updates for various models.

Yet another diagram has interesting points about unified development and 'new concept' products. The point about standardized frame silhouettes backs up what is stated in this article. One diagram additionally has what looks like a hybrid or even fuel cell system in a Land Cruiser 200 body. All the information in the link about the CV Company, combined with information in this article gives us some exciting clues.

As some of us here at LE theorized, TNGA-F indeed seems as though it will be highly modularized and flexible. That was my first instinct when I initially heard about TNGA-F. One of the fundamental aspects of all TNGA platforms is increased modularization and increased flexibility; it only makes sense that would extend to TNGA-F. Mike Sweers arrived in Aichi in June 2017, and is there until roughly June 2019 (along with his team of American engineers). So that means there is still a lot of on-going development work with TNGA-F.

This Autonews article confirms the Tundra, Tacoma, Sequoia and 4Runner will all be on TNGA-F. No silly moves to unibody here. Toyota currently has 4 body-on-frame platforms. As far as I can tell those are:

- IMV
- Tacoma
- Prado/4Runner
- Tundra/Land Cruiser/Sequoia

So TNGA-F will consolidate those, but it's not mentioned by how much. It's tempting and logical to assume that TNGA-F is flexible enough to be one platform for all of ToMoCo's body-on-frame vehicles, but we'll see. Given that there is no other body-on-frame platform variant that we know of apart from TNGA-F, I'm inclined to believe that Toyota might be able to consolidate the current 4 platforms down to one. Even if they consolidated down to two, that would still be a huge win.

The Tacoma is not as well-regarded for toughness and durability as the Hilux. The Hilux is just as legendary as the Land Cruiser for toughness and durability. I think getting the Tacoma away from its own platform and sharing a platform with the Hilux will be a big win. Also consolidation of platforms and frame variants should mean better finances and profits, giving more resources to invest into the vehicles themselves. Mike Sweers implies they won't implement silly measures like lowered front bumpers, which some American competitors have done on their trucks and SUVs.

Overall I hope Toyota is taking this as seriously as this article and the CV Company link imply. Competition is going to be scorching hot very soon in body-on-frame segments. Mitsubishi a few years ago released a brand new Pajero Sport in overseas markets. Nissan has the new Armada, and a new Patrol is said to be on the way, along with rumors of an Xterra return. Ford has the coming return of the Bronco, the coming return of the Ranger to North America, along with the sub-Bronco new SUV as well. Ford also has mysteriously said it wants to expand the F150 Raptor lineup. Then we have the recent revelation from GM that GMC will have a new trim line/sub brand called AT4. These will be off-road oriented packages for GMC vehicles. Some new Jeep products are on the way, not to mention redesigned full size pickups from the American competitors. This is not even mentioning the performance side, with competition like Chevy's RST packages, the high horsepower options from Dodge, and the high horsepower and high performance competition from European brands (although many are unibody and not body-on-frame).

Overall, that is a lot of competition coming to the truck and SUV sectors in the next few years. I just hope Toyota is prepared. The information in this thread gives me some hope at least.

Great read. Honestly, many of the Toyota truck faithful are not big fans of Mike Sweers due to the weak Tacoma "redesign" and the Tundra refresh only being skin deep, but he has some good points here. I look forward to seeing the first TNGA BOF vehicle... but most importantly... the 4Runner :)
Well the Tundra, as a refresh, was decent. The Tacoma we all know was essentially a heavy refresh and not a true "redesign", no matter what Toyota's marketing people call it. The true redesign will be the TNGA Tacoma. The Gen 3 Tacoma certainly has some issues, chief of which is the 3.5L engine and 6AT powertrain combo, which seems quite ill-suited for the truck. The key question here though is, how much freedom did Mike Sweers have in the Tacoma refresh? How much development freedom and leeway does he have overall? Or were his hands tied or maybe was he under certain restrictions during development? Was Mike Sweers perhaps forced to use the 3.5L 2GR engine with the Gen 3 Tacoma or did he personally choose that engine and transmission combo?

What is interesting will be seeing how much feedback Toyota is currently gathering from disappointed Gen 3 Tacoma owners.
 
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The 2019 calendar year looks like huge year for bothToyota and Lexus product wise

  • Corolla sedan
  • Supra
  • Tundra
  • Highlander
  • Land cruiser
  • Maybe Sequoia or 4runner
  • LCF
  • LX
  • Maybe Nx or Gx
  • Possibly LSF
  • Hopefully all new GS or IS or both. I can't wait. Toyota and Lexus are about show the whole world that they were sleeping giant ready to be awoken up for the past few years.
 
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CIF

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The 2019 calendar year looks like huge year for bothToyota and Lexus product wise

  • Corolla sedan
  • Supra
  • Tundra
  • Highlander
  • Land cruiser
  • Maybe Sequoia or 4runner
  • LCF
  • LX
  • Maybe Nx or Gx
  • Possibly LSF
  • Hopefully all new GS or IS or both. I can't wait. Toyota and Lexus are about show the whole world that they were sleeping giant ready to be awoken up for the past few years.
Quite a few of those will not debut in 2019.
 
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Quite a few of those will not debut in 2019.
Which products do you think for sure debut in 2019 then? I'll like to have a better idea. The top three products I look forward to the most are the next gen Tundra, Supra, and Lexus LCF.
 

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Which products do you think for sure debut in 2019 then? I'll like to have a better idea. The top three products I look forward to the most are the next gen Tundra, Supra, and Lexus LCF.
Depends on what you mean by 'debut'. As in, world reveal at an autoshow or event, or on-sale and available at dealerships?
 

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I mean a debut at an auto show or an event. Thanks.
Got it. Out of all those next-gen products, I think only the Corolla sedan, Highlander and possibly Land Cruiser are likely for 2019. Production Supra we may or may not see in 2019, as it is undergoing a very unusual development process. LC F and LS F we may or may not see, it's really anyone's guess when those may debut. All others I don't think we will see in 2019.
 
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Got it. Out of all those next-gen products, I think only the Corolla sedan, Highlander and possibly Land Cruiser are likely for 2019. Production Supra we may or may not see in 2019, as it is undergoing a very unusual development process. LC F and LS F we may or may not see, it's really anyone's guess when those may debut. All others I don't think we will see in 2019.
Cool. Thanks for the response. I heard rumors that the Toyota supra and Lexus LCF are going to debut at the next Detroit auto show for sure. Also keep hearing that next gen Tundra debuting at the next Chicago show, thats why there been interviews from Toyota about TNGA body on frame hinting at it. Really hope that Lexus makes a next gen GS to debut next year.
 
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The first TNGA-F vehicles are indeed 2020 MYs, so timing fits perfectly. Several design freezes over the last few months for select Toyota frame vehicles, so his arrival 10 months ago fits like a glove to help with that transition from concept to production development.

Little did anyone catch when Ian Cartiabiano slipped out of California in 2013 to Japan, to go design the XV70 Camry for 2 years. It is all about studying the movements of key people, to notice serious plans. For what seems to be the 2020 model year, the Lexus GX will undergo major changes according to patgilm at CL via his salesman confirming a showcase of a "new GX".

The next Tacoma stateside is supposed to be a 2023 model, in Sept/Oct 2022 (August 2022 SOP). Refresh is next fall, MY 2020. Already locked-in. Do not know development code yet for MY23. TNGA Tundra is 954A.
 
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The first TNGA-F vehicles are indeed 2020 MYs, so timing fits perfectly. Several design freezes over the last few months for select Toyota frame vehicles, so his arrival 10 months ago fits like a glove to help with that transition from concept to production development.

Little did anyone catch when Ian Cartiabiano slipped out of California in 2013 to Japan, to go design the XV70 Camry for 2 years. It is all about studying the movements of key people, to notice serious plans. For what seems to be the 2020 model year, the Lexus GX will undergo major changes according to patgilm at CL via his salesman confirming a showcase of a "new GX".

The next Tacoma stateside is supposed to be a 2023 model, in Sept/Oct 2022 (August 2022 SOP). Refresh is next fall, MY 2020. Already locked-in. Do not know development code yet for MY23. TNGA Tundra is 954A.
Wow. Nice information. What have heard about the Tundra if you don't mind me asking.4 runner? Land cruiser? LX?
 

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Cool. Thanks for the response. I heard rumors that the Toyota supra and Lexus LCF are going to debut at the next Detroit auto show for sure. Also keep hearing that next gen Tundra debuting at the next Chicago show, thats why there been interviews from Toyota about TNGA body on frame hinting at it. Really hope that Lexus makes a next gen GS to debut next year.
Would be great, but honestly hard to tell whether any of those will be coming in 2019. Also to add to my previous post, I now strongly believe we will see the next-gen Sienna debut next year as a 2020 model year vehicle.

The first TNGA-F vehicles are indeed 2020 MYs, so timing fits perfectly. Several design freezes over the last few months for select Toyota frame vehicles, so his arrival 10 months ago fits like a glove to help with that transition from concept to production development.

Little did anyone catch when Ian Cartiabiano slipped out of California in 2013 to Japan, to go design the XV70 Camry for 2 years. It is all about studying the movements of key people, to notice serious plans. For what seems to be the 2020 model year, the Lexus GX will undergo major changes according to patgilm at CL via his salesman confirming a showcase of a "new GX".

The next Tacoma stateside is supposed to be a 2023 model, in Sept/Oct 2022 (August 2022 SOP). Refresh is next fall, MY 2020. Already locked-in. Do not know development code yet for MY23. TNGA Tundra is 954A.
Next-gen Sienna now looks very likely to debut as MY 2020. I am excited because it is far overdue, especially being a unibody vehicle. At the very worst case, next-gen Sienna will be MY 2021, but I strongly believe MY 2020 is the goal.
 
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Would be great, but honestly hard to tell whether any of those will be coming in 2019. Also to add to my previous post, I now strongly believe we will see the next-gen Sienna debut next year as a 2020 model year vehicle.



Next-gen Sienna now looks very likely to debut as MY 2020. I am excited because it is far overdue, especially being a unibody vehicle. At the very worst case, next-gen Sienna will be MY 2021, but I strongly believe MY 2020 is the goal.
Hopefully tundra too. So next year Corolla sedan, Highlander,Sienna, Tundra, and Supra
 

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[...] while keeping the [...] rugged looks demanded by truck fans.
I would prefer real ruggedness instead of just rugged looks.

[...] the Japanese struggle with the emotional aspect of vehicle design [...]
I struggle to see the emotional aspect a vehicles which are not Japanese.



Well, overall good news for Toyota's BOF vehicles, which I think will become more important as cars shift to BEVs.
 
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CIF

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Just as an update, the next-gen Corolla sedan is pretty much confirmed to be coming as a model year 2020 vehicle. So a debut sometime in 2019 is happening. Toyota recently also confirmed the new Supra will debut sometime in 2019 as well. Further, the next-gen Highlander looks to debut either in late 2019 or sometime in 2020.
 
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