Higashi-Fuji Technical Center is one of Toyota’s key development hubs, having underpinned the company’s R&D for over 50 years. Toyota Times Editor-in-Chief Teruyuki Kagawa had visited once before to report on autonomous driving. This time, he hoped to shine the spotlight on the center’s past and future.
How far could he manage to go in this closed-door facility housing the essence of Toyota’s technology?
“We’re going to find out about the Higashi-Fuji Technical Center’s history, as well as future technologies now in development. Two goals for today!” Kagawa set out his task before striding confidently through the gates.
A history that began with lower emission engines
Waiting at the building’s entrance was Higashi-Fuji Technical Center General Manager Akihiro Yamanaka, who wasted no time showing Kagawa inside. In the first room, a timeline covered one entire wall, tracing the center’s history since its establishment more than five decades earlier.
The center was set up in the 1960s, just as society began grappling with the issue of air pollution. With the U.S. looking to start regulating exhaust emissions, lower emission engines became the Higashi-Fuji Technical Center’s key development theme. Further disruption came with the global oil shocks of the early 1970s. As people began to seek more fuel-efficient engines, these too became part of the center’s development. Since its earliest days, the Higashi-Fuji Technical Center has focused strongly on environmental technologies.
So nearly 50 years ago, you were already researching engines that could cut emissions or that would later lead to things like hybrid cars?
That’s right. Those environmental technologies evolved into the direct injection engine, continuously variable transmission (CVT), and later electrification, hybrids, and fuel cells.
In one corner of the room, Kagawa spotted a display case with some important-looking documents. As Yamanaka explained, one was a copy of the certificate Toyota received when it became the world’s first company to comply with U.S. emissions regulations. Dated 1968, this treasured document gives a glimpse into the development history. Beside it lay a paper on emissions-reducing technologies that Toyota had presented in the U.S. Among the authors was the name of Shoichiro Toyoda, Honorary Chairman of Toyota. These historical materials show how much effort Toyota has been putting into environmental technologies from those early days.
Beginning in 1965 and continuing through to 2020, the timeline contains a detailed history of Higashi-Fuji. After studying it for a while, something caught Kagawa’s eye.
You were involved in motorsports as well?
Environmental technologies are closely connected to motorsports. Take the 24 Hours of Le Mans, held in France recently as part of the World Endurance Championship. Toyota claimed its 5th straight Le Mans win in a car equipped with hybrid technology.
And that was after a hybrid production car came out in 1997, right?
Yes. That was where our electrified vehicle started. Environmental technologies came increasingly into play, even in motorsports.
That connection to motorsport is something I wasn’t expecting.
Today, I’d like to show you where we research hybrid technology for use in motorsport.
Racing takes efficiency to the extreme
With that, Kagawa was led to where the R&D happens, guided by Masakiyo Kojima and Teru Ogawa of the GR Powertrain Development Div. The building they toured was constructed in the late 1980s and has served as a hub for Toyota’s motorsport development. This includes developing powertrains, putting it quite literally at the core of Toyota’s cars. In the hallway stands a row of engines once used in races such as the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Arranged in chronological order, they reveal decades of engine evolution.
Displayed beside the engines are the words of company founder Kiichiro Toyoda: “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.” Toyota has championed motorsports-driven car-making since the beginning; a commitment to motorsport is in Toyota’s DNA.
In 2012, Toyota returned to competing in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The hybrid system used in that race is also part of the display. Ogawa explained how a motorsport-honed hybrid system was fed back into production cars.
Naturally, racing is about driving fast, but that’s not all. For instance, no matter how fast your lap is, you will get passed if you go straight into the pits to refuel.
So, it’s also about making the most of your fuel.
Right, to reduce the number of pit stops.
Ultimately, racing takes efficiency to the extreme, resulting in better fuel efficiency for normal cars.
Next, Kagawa at last set foot in the heart of Toyota’s motorsports development, a place filled with real secrets of the trade not intended for the cameras.
There, the GR Powertrain Development Div.’s Satoshi Kobayakawa demonstrated a powertrain simulation system. The powertrain refers to the parts of a vehicle that generate power. In the GR010 Hybrid that claimed victory in the 2022 Le Mans race, the powertrain includes a motor that drives the front wheels, an engine to drive the rear wheels, and the transmission, which transfers power to the tires.
In this part of the center, engineers were tuning a hybrid system using a race condition simulator. Hybrids not only use a motor to accelerate but can also recharge their battery by capturing kinetic energy during deceleration. Here, the simulator was running a car through a 24-hour race to help make it faster and more efficient. In fact, during the 24 Hours of Le Mans, racing cars continue to undergo precise adjustments even while driving at 300 km/h.
This simulation technology is also used to test powertrains for production vehicles. The system created here is even employed at the company’s headquarters in Toyota City, Aichi, to aid development. The know-how gained from motorsports expands how work is done.
What do you mean by how work is done?
Just as we’ve done here, we can develop without racing real cars. For example, if we wanted to test at Fuji Speedway but the day gets rained out, we can do it all here.
In that case, you no longer need test drivers?
Not quite… in the end, we still need feedback from human drivers.
The next area had a racing car steering wheel set up in front of a row of monitors showing graphs, measurements, and footage from the cockpit. In races, teams draw on a vast pool of some 2,000 to 3,000 data points to help identify as early as possible when the engine might be in trouble, along with other danger signs.
Invited to try the simulator for himself, Kagawa eagerly grabbed the wheel. At the press of a button, the engine noise rose in pitch and the on-screen car increased its speed. The Editor-in-Chief was in his element: “Can I spend the night here?”
While the drivers do everything by hand, in a regular car like the Prius, it’s all taken care of internally for us, isn’t it? And by simply steering and controlling the car, we’re actually performing the same operations, only they’ve already been tested for safety.
Basically, it’s like we’ve already been driving autonomous cars for the last 50 years!
Next, he was shown the machine that actually runs the engine through its simulation. “All this is inspected, right?” commented Kagawa. “If this is where all of Japan’s cars originate, no inspection is more important.”
Next up, we’ll look at carbon-neutral fuel cell technology.
Finally, we’re heading into the future. So far, it’s been more past and present, but now we’re looking to the future.
Buses, trucks, and boats! Fuel cells find ever-more uses
Next, Kagawa was guided through fuel cell development by Kota Manabe and Kazunari Moteki of the Fuel Cell System Fundamental Development Div. In the workshop stood a cutaway model of the Mirai, with the fuel cell system, known as an FC stack, in the middle of its engine bay. Three yellow hydrogen tanks could also be seen installed underfoot and beneath the rear seats. Fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) like the Mirai use the hydrogen stored in these tanks and oxygen from the air to generate electricity that powers the motor.
An FC stack comprises 330 thin sheets, or “cells,” which cause the hydrogen and oxygen to react in a way that generates electricity. This is a world of electronic components without a drop of gasoline.
Kagawa was shown an animation demonstrating how the cells work. Hydrogen (H2) and oxygen (O2) are passed through the cell from opposite sides, reacting to form water (H2O) while the electrons emitted in the process generate electricity.
On nearby testing equipment, next-generation cells were being put through their paces. According to Masakazu Yamagishi of the Fuel Cell System Fundamental Development Div., these tests check whether the cells can deliver the desired performance over prolonged periods.
We’re boosting performance in terms of how power can be extracted from each cell.
So that means you still see the potential for more power.
In the same division, Yu Ozawa showed Kagawa around the workshop for testing entire fuel cell systems. Her team envisions actual user scenarios and conducts tests that include all the parts needed to run a car.
Manabe also showed off an FC System Module, created by isolating the Mirai’s fuel cell components to serve as a versatile generator. Designed for ease of use, the system can provide electricity by simply connecting a supply of hydrogen. By combining components spread throughout the Mirai, the module opens up various applications, including forklifts, buses, trucks, ships, and trains.
If the electrical output of each of those cells goes up, that will boost the power for use in even bigger things, right?
Yes, you could do that with more power or by loading in more stacks.
So, they could even be used in spaceships, hypothetically.
There is a lunar rover project currently underway…
We reported on that. Does it also use hydrogen fuel cells?
Next, as an example of how these systems can be put to use, Kagawa was shown a fuel cell-powered minibus FCEV Coaster. The vehicle’s underbody houses a fuel cell system complete with four hydrogen storage tanks. Taking advantage of the system’s ability to provide abundant electricity, Ryu Yamada of the Fuel Cell System Fundamental Development Div. explained the team’s plans to set up a mobile office in the rear.
Parked next to the Coaster was a larger bus also powered by fuel cells. A version of the Sora FC bus already found on Tokyo streets has been modified to carry more hydrogen. As explained by Kazuya Tanefuji of the Fuel Cell System Fundamental Development Division, this vehicle was designed to transport a large number of compact batteries, enabling it to deliver electricity to places that lose power during natural disasters. Although Toyota makes the bus, the batteries used to distribute electricity come from Honda, as part of efforts to contribute to society by working across company lines.
Testing ground for future mobility infrastructure
The next stop on Kagawa’s tour was a new testing area for mobility. “Over a century ago, when cars replaced horse-drawn carts, roads were also updated to make driving easier,” explained Kenichi Kitahama of the R-Frontier Div. As cars undergo major changes through automation and electrification, new infrastructure must also accompany this evolution.
As closer integration with infrastructure connects cars to cities, developers hope to create value through improved safety and convenience. Before their ideas can be trialed on actual streets, they must demonstrate that this can be done safely. The testing area was created to conduct just such experiments.
One example can be found atop the site’s roadside power poles, which are packed with cameras and sensors. Since autonomous cars struggle to detect things like pedestrians or bikes moving out of shadows or blind spots, the idea being tested here involves identifying such hazards via infrastructure-side cameras and sharing this information with vehicles.
The roads are also embedded with devices that combine sensors and lights to detect approaching pedestrians or cyclists and alert drivers by changing color.
Charging takes many forms
Charging has become a key challenge as mobility electrification progresses. One way the center is seeking to make charging as seamless as possible is through automation.
As Koichi Ueda and Masaaki Sato of the Advanced Electrification Engineering Div. No.1 explained, automating charging would help optimize energy management, not just for individual cars but entire cities or even society as a whole.
As Kagawa watched, a robot carrying a charger in its arm approached a parked car to demonstrate autonomous charging. Such robots could be used to automate existing chargers in cities.
Toshiya Hashimoto and Akira Yoshizumi, of Advanced Electrification Engineering Divisions No.1 and No.2, respectively, demonstrated a stationary automated charger that can be placed in parking lots. When a car is parked, the charger’s arm automatically extends and connects to a port on the vehicle’s underside. Another type of charging technology works like wireless smartphone chargers, making it possible to charge cars even while driving.
If you lay these on every road in Japan, we’d never have to charge at charging stations again?
So, you could take it that far?
Yes, looking to the future, this is the kind of technology we see being used.
I’m sure it would cost a lot, but if you had these all around the country, that would really be a game-changer.
Hashimoto also showed how the wireless charging technology works while driving.
Charging on the go has many advantages; it would eliminate the need for other chargers and enable smaller batteries, making cars lighter.
At every turn, the future looks bright and promising.
I’m sure this would be a hit with kids too.
I’d love to see the generation brought up with this being the norm, even as someone of the gasoline generation. It really has come a long way in the last decade or so.
The futuristic mobility options keep coming
The mobility testing area also offered a glimpse of new forms of mobility, shown off by the Advanced Project Promotion Div.’s Tetsuya Kanata and Norinao Watanabe. They are part of a team developing autonomous vehicles that travel at slower speeds than cars. There are two main types that carry loads on top or tow them behind. The towing type, for example, can be adapted for various roles by simply changing what is being hauled. In other words, it allows Toyota to offer more options.
The towing mobility has a futuristic design, running on just two wheels side by side. It can deliver various services to customers by attaching and detaching autonomously. Named the Bridge-Palette, these vehicles can also function as an electricity supply, allowing them to service areas without power.
Hideki Fukudome of the Advanced Mobility System Development Div. demonstrated how a car could be towed. His team is exploring the idea of delivering services such as shared or rental cars, which currently must be picked up in person. The Bridge-Palette shows how it can autonomously jack up and pull the car.
For someone of my generation, it feels like getting your car towed by a wrecker.
We aim to use it for transporting even non-autonomous cars.
There are still more variations. One involves safely leading cars via the towing vehicle’s autonomous driving function instead of physical towing—yet another new form of mobility.
The next vehicle, showcased by Takuya Watabe of the Advanced Design Development Div., was the Round-Palette. A multi-purpose solution designed to travel at walking speed, it seeks to create new value through mobility. “There are many situations where walking is a stretch, but cars aren’t an option,” says Watabe, offering large shopping malls as an example. In the case of a shopping mall, where transporting passengers becomes unnecessary after hours, the top of the Round-Palette can also be replaced with a cargo tray for moving objects.
Remote driving offers another option for autonomy
“How goes the research?” Kagawa’s question was directed at Masayuki Soga, Chief Professional Engineer of the Vehicle Development Center. Soga had assisted the Editor-in-Chief during his last report on autonomous driving. This time, he was going to demonstrate remote driving.
Amid ever-growing demands on those involved in logistics and delivery, Soga’s team is looking to address the issue by enabling driving to be done remotely. Of course, developing such technology is far from simple. As Soga points out, virtual meetings often freeze due to a dropped connection—an unacceptable scenario when driving a car. On top of that, the inevitable lag makes it difficult to drive as one would a regular car. Soga showed the result of his team’s efforts to overcome such challenges.
Outside the window, a red car stood ready and waiting to be driven. The driver’s seat, however, was in the room because you control the car remotely. A demonstration by Rio Suda of the Advanced Mobility System Development Div. and Takashi Osaki of the Vehicle Engineering Development Div. ran as smoothly as if the driver was on board, with the indoor cockpit and the car outside connected via mobile phone radio waves.
Finally, Kagawa had his chance to take it for a spin. Since the steering wheel and pedals are the same as a real car, so is the driving feel. “The brakes are quite good,” commented a somewhat uneasy Kagawa while managing to keep the car smooth and steady even on narrow roads.
Could you explain the various reasons for getting this remote driving out into the world?
Alongside autonomous driving, our approach is automation with a human touch. We hope that having people involved remotely will help autonomous driving to spread. That’s one of our aims.
Another is the unique benefits of remote work. When a disaster occurs, people cannot easily go into affected areas, but we need to go and search. Due to the debris and lack of a set path, disaster sites may be difficult for autonomous driving. In such cases, having people drive remotely would be a great help.
Finally, there’s the driver shortage and lessening the toll on drivers. If a driver is needed somewhere, drivers in different locations could help.
Previous testing facility limitations have meant that, no matter how good the idea, making it a reality has been a challenge. Thankfully, the creation of this mobility test site and technological advances have allowed these ideas to be put into practice.
The budding technologies that begin here will move on to Woven City, a living laboratory for mobility, and eventually the rest of Japan. The Higashi-Fuji Technical Center is the first step in that journey.
Keeping options open for customers around the world
“I had no idea the Higashi-Fuji Technical Center held such an array of options,” commented Kagawa. Four years ago, when Akio declared that Toyota would transform into a mobility company, Yamanaka realized that his center would also have to make a fresh start. Rather than working on individual cars as in the past, Higashi-Fuji turned its attention to the challenges faced by society and the wider world, seeking to develop future-shaping technologies.
After spending the day exploring a wide assortment of technologies, Kagawa’s reaction was, “This place really is like a toy box.” Yet as a car lover, he was also concerned about the future of engine development. “Are both arrows of future technologies and engines going to remain in play?” he asked. Yamanaka responded by saying that, from the perspective of carbon neutrality, “engines powered solely by gasoline will decline.” At the same time, he expects engines running on hydrogen and other carbon-neutral fuels to stick around. Whether for motorsport or the sheer joy of driving, Yamanaka believes many customers will continue to crave the thrilling roar of an engine. And that, he emphasized, is why the center will continue to develop both areas without limiting options.
Akio often talks about the need to keep options open. As General Manager of the Higashi-Fuji Technical Center, how does Yamanaka feel?
Expanding our options means serving our customers around the world. Understanding this lets us focus on developing technologies that increase options for the good of people everywhere.
And since everyone in the company understands this, that has a big impact, right?
I dare say Akio will keep expanding our options. We are not done yet. There are options we haven’t yet imagined.
In that spirit, we’ll keep working to ensure our options aren’t limited.
To ensure they’re not limited in reality by keeping options open, as the president envisions, and go further to create more. Are you committing to that?
I hope you’re okay with that being on the record?