This article, the first in a series of articles looking at how the driving feel of Toyota is created, offers a sneak peek inside a key facility for making ever-better cars.
The Advanced Technical Skills Institute Division.
As its name suggests, this Toyota division is tasked with training high-level skills.
That includes training the company’s test drivers. To learn more about what goes on there, Toyota Times headed to the division’s home base test course, Toyota Technical Center Shimoyama.
If Toyota were a restaurant…
Before delving into the Advanced Technical Skills Institute Division, some readers may be wondering what exactly a test driver does. The job is best explained using the analogy of Toyota as a restaurant.
At Restaurant Toyota, the flavors are set by the owner-chef— —President Akio Toyoda.
Unfortunately, an owner-chef cannot possibly prepare all the dishes himself. He needs cooks who can create the unique Toyota flavors—the driving feel—that the owner-chef dreams up.
The role of these cooks is played by Toyota’s test drivers.
Their job is to test and evaluate development vehicles to help make ever-better cars with Toyota’s unique driving feel, as envisioned by Akio.
So, how do these test drivers assess and improve cars? And how do you produce outstanding test drivers in the first place?
At the “proving ground” for ever-better cars that is the Toyota Technical Center Shimoyama, Project General Manager Hisashi Yabuki oversees the division, while Akihiro Osaka works mainly on passenger and commercial vehicles. Together, they spoke at length about the unit’s seldom-told history.
The shared vision of Hiromu Naruse and Akio Toyoda
Yabuki recalled how the Advanced Technical Skills Institute Division came to be launched in April 2015.
A vehicle testing unit had existed since the 1980s with the aim of standardizing car assessment.
Unfortunately, the department was renamed within about three years, struggled to get its ideas implemented, and honestly did not have much of a presence.
Nevertheless, these efforts carried on, and in 2002-03 gave rise to an outfit called the FD Team, standing for Fascinating Drive.
Around the same time, a vehicle testing unit called the N Team was formed. This N came from the name of Hiromu Naruse, a former master driver and President Toyoda’s driving mentor.
Although the testing team was once a marginal presence, the tide began to shift in 2007 with Toyota’s entry in the 24 Hours of Nürburgring.
With the start of our Nürburgring attempts, and then-Vice President Toyoda’s driver training, the unit gradually began to make a name for itself within the company.
Although the FD and N teams were somewhat separate, they worked together on testing vehicles for the Nürburgring race, leading to the decision to combine the two. And so, the Advanced Technical Skills Institute Division was born.
Toyota approached the grueling 24-hour race with the mindset that roads build people, and people make cars. In a sense, the new division stemmed directly from Akio and Naruse’s dedication to ever-better cars.
Apparently, engineers once relied solely on measurable data to judge the strengths and weaknesses of a particular car. Sensory evaluation by test drivers, and the driving feel that resulted, helped boost the reputation of Toyota vehicles. This sparked a dramatic change in attitudes.
The division is essential in going beyond affordability and reliability to create cars that people love, as Akio and Naruse envisioned.
How did the division come by its impressive name?
The division was named by its first general manager, Masayoshi Sugawara, who now oversees engineer training.
From what I’ve heard, they had several other ideas that were shut down by President Toyoda, who told him, “Come back tomorrow with a new name.” (Laughs)
After kicking off with around 40 staff, the division’s roster now numbers 64. With no other goal but to make ever-better cars, members devote their days to getting to know the vehicles.
But what makes these test drivers different from those who race?