Toyota chairman at The Economic Club of DC

Uchiyamada recalled one of the most challenging assignments he took on at Toyota. In 1993, his group was asked to come up with a car for the 21st century. His group told the bosses that they would design a vehicle that would achieve “one and a half better fuel consumption.” Uchiyamada’s group thought that this was a very ambitious target, but the bosses weren’t satisfied. They said, “Double it! Be more ambitious."  

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“This was major pressure, in fact, the most I have ever experienced,” the chairman said. After studying 80 different systems, Uchiyamada's group chose the “series parallel” hybrid system, which would run on a combination of gas and electricity.  Fuel consumption would be optimized, and environmental issues would be addressed. 

But he wasn’t out of the woods yet. When the chairman and his group showed the first prototype model at a motor show in 1995, it was a bust, failing to move. That was agony, he said. Then for 49 days, from November until Christmas, the car did not move. Not an inch. Then before Jan. 1, it ran, but only for 500 meters. Ultimately, the group reached its goal in December 1997.  The audience at breakfast roared. The chairman was definitely charming.

Rubinstein kept trying to get bargaining advice on how to get the best price when buying a car. Uchiyamada laughed and said woman are actually tougher negotiators than men. When asked what car he would drive if he could choose anything, he said he would pick the Lexus LS hybrid. And if he were to choose a car not manufactured by Toyota, then he would spring for the BMW 5 series. (BMW must love that.)  

There are two factors that continue to propel Toyota forward, Uchiyamada said. The first is consistently improving cost, quality and productivity; the second is listening to the consumer.

Interestingly, Uchiyamada's own son did not want a Toyota when he bought his first car. He wanted something jazzier. Well, he bought it and found, to his disappointment, that it needed frequent repairs. As a result of that experience, his son is now a Toyota customer.

There was more talk about a new hydrogen fuel vehicle that the chairman is excited about; sensors that can apply brakes or control steering; the Chinese market, or lack of it; batteries (we are two generations away from non-lithium batteries); and more government–industry cooperation to create Intelligent Transportation Systems that can talk to each other to reduce emissions, ease traffic jams and prevent accidents.

But the highlight was Uchiyamada himself — his brilliance, humor, drive and 40-year commitment to innovation.