How did you become Toyota’s chief test driver?

At first, I was just following the car that the then master driver [chief test driver] was driving and trying to learn driving skills. I had to determine whether I could have “conversations” with my car, to understand what the front tire was trying to say to me. Is it complaining or not? I am now able to have a conversation with a vehicle. And that is the kind of skill that I have gained through becoming a master driver. And I believe that is my strength.

What is your biggest regret as Toyota CEO?

When I took over, I spent a lot of my time dealing with past issues. [These included accusations in the U.S. — later considered baseless — that Toyotas suffered from dangerous “sudden acceleration” episodes and later that millions of vehicles were supplied with faulty airbags]. If I was given the opportunity to start from scratch again as CEO, I would wish to begin just looking at the future.

What do you wish for Toyota’s new CEO, Koji Sato?

What I want to do as chairman is to create an environment for him as CEO to be able to use all his valuable time, 24 hours a day, to look into the future.

What has changed now that you are chairman of Toyota?

My role as master driver remains. And because I am the master driver, I continue to have this privilege to express my opinions about the products that we develop. Whether my involvement regarding the product is seen as a hindrance or a headache for the people developing that product, I will still give them my opinion.

How do you think the auto industry should face climate change?

I am a person living on a planet that is facing global warming and I belong to the auto industry. I believe that this is an issue that the whole industry needs to seriously confront and tackle. I also have the belief that environmental technologies can contribute to solving these issues, but only if they are widely used. Based on that belief, we should look at all the various environmental technologies available: full hybrids, plug-in hybrids, battery and fuel cell electric vehicles. We should think about the best way to use this mixture of technologies to reduce carbon emissions as much and as quickly as possible.

Although Toyota expanded its model range to 88 from 48 models during your tenure (2009-23), its battery-electric models arrived only in 2022, with about 26,000 sales out of a 10.5 million group total last year. What is your personal view on BEVs?

My view regarding BEVs is that they are one of the most important technologies in contributing to reducing global warming, but not the only solution. Toyota is a company that is operating globally and has a complete lineup. When we look worldwide, there are about 1 billion people who will be among our customer base that do not have enough charging infrastructure in place. Therefore, if we say that BEVs are the only option that we should pursue, what will happen to these people who do not have enough infrastructure?

If electric cars are key to helping to tackle climate change, is renewable energy also crucial?

Absolutely, we have to consider how we are going to generate power for BEVs. Take Japan — we still rely heavily on thermal power generation, which means the more electricity we generate, the more CO2 we emit. When we talk about emission regulations, we tend to focus on vehicles only, but I think it is also an energy issue. We need to think about how the energy will be generated, how will it be supplied to the vehicles.

Toyota had been at the forefront of fuel cell technology and lately started testing hydrogen in internal combustion engines. What do you expect from hydrogen?

We have presented a combustion engine powered by hydrogen. Fuel cells have been used for years. The major difference between these vehicles is whether you hear the engine sound or not. Japan is not a natural-resource-rich country and I hope that someday we will have a car that can run on hydrogen and will be affordable to the general public. That is something I wish for, but actually I think it is still a little way ahead in the future.

What pushed Toyota to start using hydrogen in race cars?

We are using racing opportunities to accelerate our product development, because when you use this kind of environment, the speed of development increases greatly. On top of this, when it’s a race environment, there are many people watching it.

But many people are still scared by cars burning hydrogen.

True, many people still think that hydrogen equals an explosion. When we first brought a hydrogen engine car to demonstrate at the WRC [World Rally Championship] where cars are driven on roads, a lot of people asked, “Is hydrogen dangerous?” The authorities were also curious. They were very worried that it was a dangerous car, so they asked the team, “Who is going to drive this hydrogen car?” The team answered Morizo [Akio Toyoda’s pseudonym as a race car driver]. Then they said, “Go ahead.”

What about synthetic fuels?

I think they could be one of the options [for decarbonization]. One of the reasons they are not spreading widely and quickly is because of their high cost. I think using those synthetic fuels in motor sports is also significant, because we can look at what kind of challenges that we have and try to overcome them one by one at the accelerated pace typical of motor sports.

What will happen to Morizo and your role of master driver now you are chairman?

Probably people are wondering how long I am going to continue to be a master driver. I enter races together with the company’s test drivers who have high driving skills and I also join races with gentlemen [non-professional] drivers. There is a promise or a rule that I decided together with these other drivers: If my time is 10 seconds slower than them on the same course, then I will quit being a master driver. This rule was decided three years ago, but today my average time gap with them is one second. So, the time that I will quit as master driver is further in the future. This assessment will be decided on this time gap and not on my age.

If Morizo was given the chance to compete with any other driver in any race car, who would you choose?

I would choose my grandfather driving a car of his times. I would be driving a modern car. I want to prove that I could win and I beat him and he stays 10 seconds behind me.


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