A chat with 2019 Toyota RAV4 Chief Engineer Yoshikazu Saeki

SAE's Automotive Engineering sits down with the chief engineer for the 2019 Toyota RAV4 at the launch of the all-new C-class SUV during its media launch in Carmel, CA.
Yoshikazu Saeki (above) is the chief engineer for the Toyota RAV4 and Toyota Highlander. Saeki (54) joined the company in 1987 as a suspension engineer on the Land Cruiser team where he spent four years before reassignment to product planning, joining the Camry group. He spent 23 years in product planning – including a three-year stint in Michigan – and became the lead on RAV4 in 2003. We sat down with Saeki during the 2019 Toyota RAV4 media launch in Carmel, CA, and below is an excerpt of that interview. Saeki’s keen intellect and great sense of humor came through as he discussed ‘building better cars’, not getting fired, driving on the 405 and thinner soled shoes.
Automotive Engineering: You and your team spent four years working on the new RAV4, and this after a directive by Toyota President Akio Toyoda to "build better cars."
Yoshikazu Saeki: To start off, ‘building better cars’ is a really generalized term. It was a test by Akio Toyota to his engineers, saying, "Challenge yourself to think what a better car actually is." So for the last four years, I had that question just ringing in my head, always trying to think about what that meant. To be honest I don’t even know if this product, the result, is according to the expectations of Mr. Toyoda. I have no idea. But if I ask that, I might get fired.
AE: What were the biggest influences on your direction?
YS: Out of my experience, my time on the Camry/Avalon team and Michigan. The influences that created the base foundation for me were heavily influenced by America. You start thinking, once again, what is a better car? What does that mean? I need to really understand American customers, what their lifestyle is and what their expectations are. That's something I think about all the time.
For example, the winter season in Michigan can bring freezing rain. I was always scared driving in these conditions. Then on a business trip in Los Angeles, on the 405/San Diego Freeway, the northern side has a lot of hills, right? And when you're in the carpool lane you have this center divider that's right next to you. Something I feel nervous about is probably scary for the average driver too, but you still have to go on the 405 freeway to get to work, and just coming back from the office you might have to go through freezing rain.
I realized that a better car starts at that point. I have my own family and customers have their families, and it's not just the driver. All the immediate family around them become a related concern. I wanted to figure out how the driver as well as the immediate family around them could have a vehicle that they could rely on and feel confident about.
AE: How does that translate into the product?
YS: As they drive the car that relationship will get stronger: “I feel safe and confident in this car. This car will safely transport me back home.” That feeling will turn into love for the car. That's the difference when you're trying to make a better car. To create that kind of motivation, that emotion from owners, is what the goal should be. That was the foundation of this particular vehicle. Then, there needs to be something that's intuitive and totally obvious. Like bigger tires. Good ground clearance...
AE: …things you can see.
YS: Yes, that's really important. That was the foundation for the exterior styling, seeing things that give you confidence. That was the start. Next, performance. We thought about customer control of the vehicle and the dynamics, the vehicle reaction. It has to become like one. What we did is get shoes with the thinnest soles possible. You're pushing on the throttle just one millimeter and see what the reaction is. If it's good acceleration and you let off and it's good deceleration, that's where you begin the evaluation. If you could do that consistently – the forward and rearward G movement – it creates a very smooth transition. It's a matter of when the driver comes onto the highway and if there's a traffic jam and they have to decelerate and let off, we have to make sure that the driver also knows exactly how the car is going to react.
AE: For the new RAV4, you’re working with a new, larger platform (TNGA-K). What were your thoughts when you learned this?
YS: The previous RAV4 was based off the Corolla, but if you try to make a RAV4 out of a Corolla, you push the limits on different aspects. So what happens on the engineering side is, my Vice President tells me I need to go on a diet. But if you use a Camry platform, it’s like you can wear the perfect clothes. This is a really big and important point: You don't have to push anything, you don't have to stress anything. If you try to engineer items at the limits of performance, there's not too many new things you can do. But if you have a little bit of leeway, then there's all kinds of different possibilities that become apparent. Since I’ve been on RAV4 since 2003, I understand well the points of the previous platform. There were a lot of things we couldn't do on the previous car. Now sharing the Camry platform we can try and challenge things that we couldn't do before.
AE: Was it hard to constrain yourself in terms of size with the new platform?
YS: I’m also the chief engineer of the Highlander, so I’m always thinking to myself about the lineup. If a small car becomes bigger, it makes the big car even bigger. So other chief engineers, they have individual car projects, like Corolla or the Camry. But for me, having two, I’m always trying to think of the customer looking at the lineup and the two options, and that was definitely part of the development.
AE: For RAV4, you discuss hybrid as a performance component?
YS: A hybrid system was never meant just for fuel economy. I wanted to tell everyone, “You can do all kinds of fun stuff with the hybrid, too.”
AE: One of the key tenants of the new car was visibility. What does that mean to you?
YS: I went to a restaurant in downtown New York and there was a parking lot underground and it was a really narrow space, very small, cramped. I’d had this fundamental assumption that you wouldn't have any problems parking anywhere in America. Michigan, no problem at all. But downtown L.A., New York? It was a revelation to me. I wanted to make it so you can see out of it, so my mother could safely and easily drive the car. In order to do that you've got to lower the belt line. Moving the side-view mirrors to the door so if you're at an intersection, when you turn, you can see pedestrians in the crosswalk or bicycles easier. It's such a basic concept, but that's where we wanted to start.
AE: The new digital rear-view mirror is also a visibility aspect..
YS: When I was on the 405 freeway – I can't even count how many lanes there were – and you want to change lanes there might be a really fast car coming. Let's say if you have friends or luggage and shopping stuff in the back blocking your rearview mirror. If you have a camera mounted behind that, at least you can predict when it's coming. There were so many times I got surprised on the 405 freeway, that's why I thought that the new mirror might be something customers appreciate.
AE: You had a number of new tools during development, torque vectoring, etc.
YS: No matter what kind of hardware you create it won't [necessarily] become a good car. The more important thing is taking that hardware and being able to master it and use it properly. So torque vectoring for instance, it's just a tool to distribute torque. Of course, with that we'll use the braking, EPS and electronic throttle systems etc., along with the main hardware of the torque vectoring system. The trick is to see how they network and will connect with each other. It's easy to say, "Hey, we're out with new torque vectoring." But it's not that. It’s how are you using it. How is the driver feeling that? How is it affecting them?
AE: How does your engineering team manage these new tools?
YS: On this particular vehicle we created a Takumi team. A Tukumi is like the top guns of the Toyota test-drive group. They're technicians but actually teachers and instructors. They don't evaluate with their head, they evaluate with their heart – all their comments are based off of that. All of us engineers, we’re asking ourselves, "What part do we need to adjust to draw out that emotion? Maybe we need to have a quicker response time? Do we need to adjust the EPS system, or do we need to adjust the VSC system?” Everybody thinks about it together, then we make the changes. It's just a repetitive process, over and over again.
If you look at engineering, it’s divided into all these little realms, its own subdivisions. But for technicians like the top guns, it's all about skill. They don't care about the keywords – harmonization, confident, natural. It’s “overall, what do you think?” If the steering feel is heavy but your gas pedal is light, there's a big gap there. So we try to balance it. It's about harmonizing everything.
AE: Is the thought process behind this unique to your team?
YS: There's probably fewer than 20 chief engineers in all of Toyota. Out of those, rather than always thinking with my head, I’m probably more passionate about it. So within my own context I try to think what a better car might be. Let's say as of today – which means I haven’t been fired as of today – that's an answer in itself.
Cars are a manufactured product. But the people who are using them, they're human. So being humans, they have a heart, and feeling and emotion. Within that they have immediate families and people that are also connected to them in the social aspect. It's my job to see the car as a tool to try and make the person who buys it and the people around them happy. I really wanted to make a car like that.
AE: Toyota is a large company with an established management structure. How do you ensure you are getting unfiltered feedback from your team?
YS: Teamwork is the most important. Between a chief engineer and a technician, there's all kind of differences in their trade. But whether you're a technician or an engineer, you're going after the same goal and you should be able to voice your opinion. In Japan, the technician's a little bit lower ranked than the engineer, but on my team [gestures equally with his hands]. I always tell my team, "I want you to do the best professional work as possible, but I don't want corporate structure or ranking and profession to get in the way."
Engineers always talk from their head, their brain. Whatever the technician says, I take it as speaking from the heart. The technicians professionally test drive the vehicle and of course have their own formal meetings. But when we gather as a team, in a meeting room, they can worry about the differences in there, they don’t always match. There's a lot of times when that person wants to say more. So of course, after that I can say, "Hey, let's go grab a drink."
AE: People must like working on your team.
YS: Yes, but I make them drink too much. Continue reading »