Fuji is the place to be! The 3 Sites Creating Toyota's Future: Part 2

2022.07.22

The first part of this series focused on Editor-in-Chief Teruyuki Kagawa’s time at the Fuji Motorsports Forest. Part 2 shines the spotlight on the Higashi-Fuji Technical Center, the backbone of Toyota’s R&D for over half a century and a prototype city under construction.

What exactly is Toyota researching, and what is its vision for the future? Kagawa went to find out all the details.

Getting to the heart of Toyota R&D at the Higashi-Fuji Technical Center

Continuing his report on Toyota’s three Fuji-area sites, Kagawa next visited the Higashi-Fuji Technical Center. He was greeted by the center’s General Manager, Akihiro Yamanaka, who began by showing a timeline that traces the half-century since the facility was established.

The center was established in the 1960s, as society was beginning to grapple with the issue of air pollution and began to work on the development of clean engines. Later, during the oil shocks, this research broadened to include fuel efficiency. As Yamanaka says, “Since the earliest days, we’ve focused strongly on environmental technologies.” Astonishingly, as far back as 50 years ago, the center was already researching the technologies that would grow into hybrid cars.

As Kagawa studied the timeline, something caught his eye.

Kagawa:
You were involved in motorsports as well?

Yamanaka:
As it happens, environmental technologies are closely connected to motorsports. Later, I’d like to show you where we are researching hybrid electric technologies for use in motorsport.

Kagawa:
Oh!

Kagawa was introduced to Teru Ogawa of the GR Powertrain Development Div., who showed him around the building that serves as Toyota’s hub for motorsport development. One wall is adorned with the words of company founder Kiichiro Toyoda, extolling motorsport-driven car development since the company’s beginnings: “Auto races must not be regarded as a simple matter of curiosity, for they are indispensable to the development of Japan’s automobile manufacturing industry.” A commitment to motorsport is in Toyota’s DNA.

Given that motorsport engines are engineered to extremes, Kagawa pointed out that most people would assume that these technologies held little relevance to production cars. In response, Ogawa showed him a hybrid system used to take on the Le Mans 24-hour race.

Ogawa:
Naturally, racing is about driving fast, but there are also other important aspects, such as making the most of your fuel.

Kagawa:
To reduce the number of pit stops.

Ogawa:
Yes. Ultimately, racing takes efficiency to the extreme. And that results in better fuel efficiency for normal cars.

Kagawa:
I see.

From there, Kagawa at last set foot in the heart of the development hub. Satoshi Kobayakawa of the GR Powertrain Development Div. demonstrated a powertrain simulation. This testing allows engineers to check for powertrain issues by reproducing the exact conditions a car would undergo in an endurance race.

Racing drivers tweak countless switches to bring out a car’s full performance. The diverse knowledge and expertise accumulated through these races are then used to improve the control of production cars.

“So, it’s like we’re basically driving autonomous cars already!” exclaimed Kagawa after learning of the numerous vehicle control programs—honed through motorsports—running in current production cars.

Fuel cells move beyond mobility

Next, Kagawa took a look at fuel cell development. Kota Manabe of the Fuel Cell System Fundamental Development Div. presented a cutaway Mirai model, which revealed yellow tanks installed underfoot and beneath the rear seats.

These tanks, which store hydrogen at around 70MPa, are designed to withstand 2.25 times that pressure to prevent rupture in the event of a collision. Fuel cell electric vehicles like the Mirai use the hydrogen stored in these tanks, along with oxygen from the air, to generate electricity that powers the vehicle.

Kagawa:
Why is this fuel cell being researched here at the Higashi-Fuji Technical Center?

Manabe:
Things like the power control unit, the rear motor, the battery—we’ve borrowed all these from the Prius hybrid. This body was also developed by other departments in the center.

Kagawa:
So, without the hybrid powertrain research you spoke of, the Mirai would not have been possible?

Yamanaka:
That’s right. Bringing the various strands of development together leads to even greater things.

Kagawa:
And that’s what Higashi-Fuji is for. Having everything nearby is a big advantage.

Manabe also showed an FC System Module, created by isolating the Mirai’s fuel cell components to serve as a versatile generator. Turning the fuel cell into a general-purpose system allows for various applications beyond Toyota cars, including forklifts, buses, trucks, ships, and trains. Customers around the world are already trialing these modules to expand their potential uses.

Climbing into a Mirai, Kagawa was taken to see a Toyota Coaster minibus set up as a fuel cell electric vehicle (FCEV). Equipped with the power supply function, it can also serve as a power source in disaster-stricken areas.

The large bus standing beside the Coaster was another FCEV. As explained by Kazuya Tanefuji of the Fuel Cell System Fundamental Development Div., this vehicle was also designed to deliver electricity to places that lose power during natural disasters. A closer look at the side of the bus revealed a Honda logo beside Toyota’s mark. Although Toyota makes the bus itself, the batteries used to distribute electricity come from Honda.

Having seen the Mazda in the garage earlier, Kagawa couldn’t hide his surprise. “That’s the second company besides Toyota today!” The bus’s vast interior can be packed with compact batteries, charged and ready for delivery wherever needed. The vehicle can also supply power directly to evacuation sites or other facilities.

Testing ground for future mobility infrastructure

The next stop on Kagawa’s visit looked like a driving test course. In fact, it was a new testing area for mobility. “When cars replaced horse-drawn carts, roads were also updated to make driving easier,” explained Kenichi Kitahama of the R-Frontier Div. As mobility evolves, so must infrastructure—and that’s where this testing ground comes to play.

Kitahama pointed to the top of a power pole packed with cameras and sensors. What are they all for? Since autonomous cars struggle to detect things like pedestrians or bicycles moving out of shadows or blind spots, cameras on the infrastructure side can provide them with such information to avoid accidents.

On the road, the center line is embedded with devices that combine sensors and lights to detect approaching pedestrians or cyclists and alert drivers by changing color.

Kagawa:
On country roads, the deer and boar might figure it out too – "It lights up for us too, we'll never be hit by cars again!"

Yamanaka:
We want to improve safety and comfort from the infrastructure side.

Kagawa:
Boosting safety from all sides.

A robot charging my car?!

Koichi Ueda and Masaaki Sato of Advanced Electrification Engineering Div. No.1 introduced Kagawa to their “city-scale powertrain” development. Their challenge is to optimize energy management not just for individual cars but for entire cities or even society as a whole.

A key element in achieving this goal is the automation of car charging. This means creating technology that allows cars to be charged at optimal times and locations. As Kagawa watched, a robot with a charger in its arm approached a parked car to demonstrate autonomous charging.

Sato:
On a rainy day like today, you don’t have to get out of the car to charge it.

Kagawa:
Of course! Makes perfect sense.

Akira Yoshizumi of the Advanced Electrification Engineering Div. No.2 and Toshiya Hashimoto of Advanced Electrification Engineering Div. No.1 also showed other prototypes, including a stationary automated charger that can be placed in parking lots and a wireless type that works in the same way as wireless smartphone chargers. “If you lay these on every road in Japan,” commented Kagawa excitedly, “We’d never have to charge at charging stations again!”

Yamanaka:
Right now, we're figuring out which charging approach works best for a given type of mobility and environment.

Kagawa:
Even charging comes with options!

The futuristic mobility options keep coming

Next, Norinao Watanabe of the Advanced Project Promotion Div. showed off a new type of mobility called a Bridge-Palette. The compact autonomous vehicle can handle many tasks, such as pulling trollies or carrying goods.

Hideki Fukudome of the Advanced Mobility System Development Div. demonstrated the Bridge-Palette towing a car. His team is exploring its potential use in delivering shared or rental cars to customers.

Kagawa:
For someone of my generation, it feels like getting your car towed to the wreckers.

Fukudome:
(laughs)

The team is also developing technology that would allow the Bridge-Palette towing unit to transport a car without mechanical links.

The next vehicle, showcased by Takuya Watabe of the Advanced Design Development Dept., was the Round-Palette. As a multi-purpose mobility solution that travels at walking speeds, its possible uses include transporting people and goods. Make sure to check out the footage of Kagawa himself going for a ride.

Future development built on past foundations

Completing his tour of the facilities, Kagawa was astounded by the variety he saw. “I had no idea the Higashi-Fuji Technical Center was working on such a wide array of options.” As General Manager Yamanaka explained, when Akio announced Toyota’s transformation into a mobility company four years ago, the Center realized that it too needed a fresh start. Instead of continuing to develop individual cars as they had in the past, the team shifted its focus to social issues and the development of technologies that contribute to the wider world.

Despite catching a glimpse of a flexible future, as a car-lover Kagawa was also concerned about what would happen to the development of engines. “Are both of those arrows (the development of future technologies and conventional engines) going to remain in play?” he asked Yamanaka.

“From the perspective of carbon neutrality,” replied Yamanaka, “engines powered solely by gasoline will decline.” Simultaneously, he expects engines running on carbon-neutral fuels like hydrogen to stick around. Whether it’s motorsport or simply the joy of driving, many customers crave the thrill of an engine. And that, Yamanaka emphasized, is why the center will continue to develop both areas without limiting options.

What’s more, both development efforts will build on technological foundations cultivated over many years.

Kagawa:
In pursuing carbon neutrality, there are now various fuel cell, electric, and hybrid vehicles available, but I feel like all of these technologies stem from the earnest R&D efforts taken by people in the gasoline age.

Yamanaka:
I think that’s exactly right. To date, Toyota’s developers have always worked for the good of people and the world, tackling the challenges of the times and providing appropriate solutions. As long as that mentality remains, I’m sure we will continue to create good products. Our approach is always to give our all to deliver what is needed.

Kagawa:
That’s how past research gets passed down to serve as a hint for the future. I was able to see concrete examples of that today, and I realized that this process is what being a mobility company is all about. Please continue giving it your all, as only Higashi-Fuji can.

Yamanaka:
We'll keep doing what we can.

Hydrogen cartridges bound for Woven City trials

The final Fuji site was Woven City. To get the latest updates on the city’s progress, Kagawa visited Woven Planet in Nihonbashi, Tokyo. He was welcomed by CEO James Kuffner, keen to share the company’s efforts in sustainable hydrogen use.

“We’ll look at how hydrogen energy can be used in everyday life,” explained Masashi Nakamura, Sub-Function Lead (H2 supply & Utilization) of the Woven City Management team. “We want to make hydrogen a more familiar, cherished form of energy.” This mindset has driven the development of portable hydrogen cartridges.

The hydrogen-filled cartridges are small enough to be easily carried in both hands. Picking one up for the first time, Kagawa was startled to find it far lighter than he expected. Nakamura says a portable size is important for ensuring that people can use the cartridges in their daily lives.

Inserting the hydrogen cartridge into a café-like stall, Kagawa looked very pleased with himself. “It feels like I’m living in the future!” According to Nakamura, three such cartridges are enough to power an average household of two for one day.

Nakamura says that development also focuses on how the small tanks can be efficiently refilled. He laid out the future prospects.

Kagawa:
When do you see this becoming a reality?

Nakamura:
We’ll start with trials in Woven City, which will open between 2024 and 2025. From there it will take several years as we refine and make them publicly available.

Kagawa:
It feels like you’ve got the steps mapped out. Look out for those hydrogen cartridges!

Engaging with partners to create future mobility

Speaking with the CEO, Kagawa again asked what Woven City would be like.

Kuffner explained that Woven City is a test course for mobility, a place for creating the “future fabric of life.” His team is aiming to redefine mobility as a way to move people’s hearts, not just a reinterpretation of automobiles or physical transportation from point A to point B. That’s what they are pursuing together with like-minded inventors and entrepreneurs outside of Toyota.

The area around Mt. Fuji is home to three key sites: Fuji Motorsports Forest, the Higashi-Fuji Technical Center, and Woven City. Kagawa asked Kuffner about how he envisions the relationship between these three projects.

Kuffner:
I see those three entities coming together—representing the past, present, and future—integrated into a center of innovation for mobility, tested in Woven City. And having Mt. Fuji as a backdrop provides great inspiration to bring the future together while not losing the past.

Kagawa:
At the ground-breaking ceremony, when I heard of a living laboratory, I had no concrete image of what the city would become. But now, so many different things are tied into it, and it’s like some unearthly orb floating in the sky has come down to earth and started spreading its roots.

Kuffner:
All the best ideas for new mobility and well-being won’t come from just our team. That’s why we want to engage with partners; we want to unlock the full potential of this wonderful project and people together. And for me, that is a huge motivation personally.

I’m so thankful for the hard work and support of everyone to challenge this project. I can feel a big responsibility, but it’s also just an amazing opportunity to lead this project forward and challenge for the future.

Kagawa:
You've got your work cut out. Good luck!

Kuffner:
I'll do my best!

Three sites that will create our future

(Photo: Noriaki Mitsuhashi/N-RAK PHOTO AGENCY)

At the Fuji 24-hour race press conference on June 3, 2022, Akio spoke at length about his thoughts on the area’s three sites.

Akio:
To me, the three sites are all interconnected as places that create the future. We also have the Fuji Speedway and the new ROOKIE Racing garage playing parts.

The decision to build this project here goes back some 60 years to when my father brought me to see the 3rd Japanese Grand Prix here at Fuji Speedway. This was the place that created my childhood dream of working with cars.

I want kids of today to enjoy the same formative experiences that I did. I want them to think cars are cool, to look up to drivers and mechanics, and to dream of being engineers. Those formative experiences of 60 years ago are what I want to share with people through our facilities here at Fuji.

In that sense, Fuji Speedway continues its enduring role of spreading the joy of cars into the future.

Meanwhile, the Higashi-Fuji Technical Center continues to develop new, as yet unproven technologies, along with units for the Le Mans 24-hour race. These development efforts extend beyond racing, helping to advance the cars on our city streets. I see this place connecting the present with the future.

Similarly, in Woven City, our city of the future, we are creating a test course for future mobility. This is the place for creating future technologies that give people happiness in their daily lives.

And so, all three places help to create the future. I hope they can find a potent chemistry and stimulate each other as they contribute to creating our future.

Brought together by coincidence or necessity?

Kagawa was able to thoroughly explore Toyota’s three sites in the Fuji area: the Fuji Motorsports Forest, which will pass the history of motorsports on to future generations; the nearby Higashi-Fuji Technical Center, which sustains that history with technical development; and Woven City, a prototype city of the future. In doing so, he gained a clear picture of how these tightly interlinked projects underpin Toyota’s approach of pursuing every direction with everything it’s got.

Although the three facilities have clustered at the foot of Mt. Fuji by sheer coincidence, to Kagawa, it is “a coincidence that feels more like fate and necessity.” The Higashi-Fuji Technical Center has been tackling environmental issues, from air pollution to fuel efficiency for over 50 years. Kagawa believes that the mentality of working for people’s happiness and the good of the planet is what sustains President Akio Toyoda today as he leads the way forward.

Kagawa:
What has brought these separate projects together? To me, it feels like a tremendous sense of purpose. And with that strong purpose, we can expect things to happen—the steady progress of this Woven City site, the developments we saw at the Higashi-Fuji Technical Center, and the growth of Fuji Motorsports Forest. That’s where it will shine.

Fuji is the place to be! Toyota Times!

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