Tuesday, Jun. 08, 2004

The Eco-Car Engineers

Shigeyuki Hori, Yohichi Sugiura and Kira Nakamura
Shigeyuki Hori looks like your average Japanese salaryman, but at heart he's a speed demon. Once a week, the Toyota engineer heads to the company test track at the base of Mount Fuji to try out new models. There he dons a crash helmet and in a one-on-one communion between car and creator, he barrels his work-in-progress around a track at upwards of 120 mph. The 51-year-old admits he's addicted to the speed rush. "When I'm out there on the track, I'm fearless," he says.

Fearlessness has been a useful asset for Hori. As executive chief engineer responsible for the gas-electric hybrid Prius, he spent years battling the idea that environmentally friendly cars would never appeal to consumers or make a profit. Today, he stands proudly on the wreckage of that conventional wisdom, having helped to create the first eco-car to decisively leave the drawing board and storm the streets of suburbia. Over 110,000 units have been sold worldwide since the first-generation Prius was introduced in Japan in 1997. "Our challenge," he says, "was to achieve our environmental goals without compromising performance and design."

The redesigned 2004 Prius, which draws power from a gasoline engine and an electric motor to deliver 60 mpg on city roads, represents the realization of that objective. Since its debut last year, the car has been the toast of the automotive world. Despite its pedestrian list price of about $20,000, the snub-nosed hatchback has become a badge of celebrity chic: Cameron Diaz and Harrison Ford took their Priuses to the Oscars last year.

But in the vast, utilitarian office where Hori and his team of engineers are forging the next-generation eco-car, there's little in the way of glamour. Here, innovation comes through team effort, and individual stars are hard to pinpoint.

Still, the intensity and scale of their efforts can be gauged from the 530 patents Hori and his engineers have racked up during the development of the new Prius But Hori is no mere taskmaster. "He gives us the freedom to pursue our own ideas," says Yohichi Sugiura, an engine expert.

Right now, Hori and his team are focused on the future. "The original Prius proved that hybrid cars were technically feasible. The new model has shown that it can be attractive to consumers. The third generation has to be even more powerful and more fuel efficient," says Hori. His vision for Toyota's eco-friendly autos goes beyond the Prius line. "The next step is to apply hybrid technology to other models, and to reduce its price," he says. After that, he has his sights on dispensing with CO2-belching gasoline engines entirely: "Ultimately, the future is in electric power." It might sound like an eco-platitude. But if someone is going to bring an electric car to your driveway, there's a good chance Hori will be the one to do it.

With reporting by Michiko Toyama/Toyota City