TOKYO -- Toyota Motor wants to add a dash of "epic" to its production cars by taking cues from the wild world of rally racing -- a sport where tricked-out production models bomb along public roads at speeds of up to 200kph.
The Japanese automaker has entered a modified Yaris subcompact -- known as the Vitz in Japan -- in the FIA World Rally Championship to gain insights on ways to revamp its next-generation Yaris and collect data for developing driver-assistance systems aimed at preventing accidents.
In mid-July, engineers from Tommi Makinen Racing, a Finnish rally team that Toyota hired for its new racing project, flew to Toyota's headquarters in the central Japanese city of Toyota, Aichi Prefecture. The Finns had turned the Yaris into a rally machine, and engineers at the carmaker wanted to hash out ideas for tweaking the next Yaris, due out in 2019.
The World Rally Championship is an annual series of 13 races that rivals Formula One in popularity in Europe. Each race is held over a period of four days and covers a varied mix of terrain, from mountain roads to farm roads to city streets. The teams and drivers are ranked over the course of the year based on their performance.
To make the Yaris race-ready, the Finnish engineers made drastic modifications, from changing the locations of the engine and steering wheel to adjusting the travel of the suspension.
Using input from the people at Tommi Makinen Racing, Toyota developed and added ideas for the redesigned Yaris. When it comes out, the new model will have a decidedly sportier look, including a low-slung profile.
"It's not as if low-slung profile designs are only for rallies," Toyota executive adviser Koei Saga said. "Such changes can enhance the driving experience for production cars, too."
In addition to the design changes, the Yaris will be Toyota's first compact to be built using the Toyota New Global Architecture, a new production method for improving production efficiency and product quality through the use of common parts across a range of vehicles.
This will entail a drastic change in parts, such as the engine and platform designs. The new component designs will be transplanted into other compacts. The rally-inspired features in the new Yaris, for example, will be used in the Aqua compact.
Going to extremes
But the changes are not limited to design; the Yaris will get new "brains," too, with the help of data gathered during the races.
Toyota collaborated with Microsoft to develop software that analyzes the view from the driver as well as the operational status of parts such as the gears, brakes and steering. The carmaker has already accumulated huge amounts of data from onboard sensors used during races.
That information is sent to Toyota Research Institute, the company's artificial intelligence research and development subsidiary in Silicon Valley, where it is used to develop technology for advanced driver-assistance systems.
The thinking is that tracking rally drivers as they steer their cars along bumpy roads at 200kph is an excellent way to produce data on what kinds of decisions people make in extreme situations, said Senior Managing Officer Shigeki Tomoyama.
"We sift through the data to examine how the drivers avert dangerous situations, and we can use that information to create programs that help cars avert accidents in emergency situations," Tomoyama said. "Developing rally cars will lead to better-performing production cars; we'll create a virtuous circle [for development]," he added.
President Akio Toyoda has a credo: "Roads build people and cars." It is this philosophy that prompted him to push the company into motor sports and use that experience to develop production cars and train personnel.
Toyota may be re-entering rally racing for the first time in nearly two decades, but it has not been totally unplugged from motor sports. It has, for example, participated in the 24 Hours of Nurburgring endurance race in Germany since 2007 and in the FIA World Endurance Championship since 2012.
When the company's new-look Yaris rolls off the production line, it will no doubt carry those races in its DNA.