OEM interview: Mazda

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The MX-30 is Mazda’s response to rapidly shifting global automotive trends – and program manager Tomiko Takeuchi was just the pioneering character needed to deliver it to market

Mazda’s global R&D operation might be known for its propensity to explore the unfamiliar, but in the 2020s, it seems automotive developers are more willing than ever to try new and unfamiliar things. The recently launched MX-30 not only embodies the industry’s ongoing shift toward SUVs, but also expands Mazda’s already broad powertrain mix to include the OEM’s first battery-electric package. 

As global program manager Tomiko Takeuchi stresses, the company’s engineering process is steered as much by how it can accommodate customers as components. “In our research and development, we are still highly interested in understanding the physical characteristics and psychology of people,” she affirms. “We want our products and services to deliver a smile to customers; ‘people’. Each human being has unique characteristics such as age, body features, experiences and senses, and there are a lot of areas that need further research in order to understand the ‘people’.” 

Something special
The MX-30 was launched in the same year that Mazda celebrated its centenary. Founded in 1920 as
a manufacturer of cork products, Mazda is a relative newcomer to the automotive arena. The Japanese
giant built its first car, the R360, in 1960. The coupe was the beginnings of a rapid global expansion that later spawned a network of regional R&D hubs and fostered an open-minded approach built on unconventional ideas and solutions. 

According to Takeuchi, the MX-5, as one of the OEM’s most successful showpieces, was what lured her to join the company back in 1997 after graduating from Kyushu University, and having grown up in Mazda’s hometown of Hiroshima. “I loved vehicles from a young age. I had a car as a student and remember thinking it was wonderful how it expanded my range of abilities, allowed me to discover new people and places and brought a smile to my face. I wanted to share this appeal with as many others as possible, so I joined Mazda, which was local and familiar.” 

As she recalls, demands on engineers at the time were changing constantly. Furthermore, at the turn of the millennium, Mazda’s collaboration with Ford was gaining momentum. Its model range was reaching a much wider geographical audience. Takeuchi grabbed hold of the opportunity this offered and got stuck into her duties. 

After two years focusing on electrical and electronics development, she made history when she became Mazda’s first female test driver in 1999. Her feedback contributed considerably to the creation of the Mazda5 MPV and RX-8 coupe. Takeuchi had a flair for evaluating, and she also became the only female within the organization to achieve the top-level license in test driving. Such a feat is rare, according to Mazda, as not all evaluators manage to accomplish this. 

Inside job
It goes without saying that Takeuchi’s opinion is highly valued within the firm, and her input has shaped some of Mazda’s most important products. She’s also been lucky enough to travel to worldwide locations with various co-workers to proving grounds in Japan, Europe and North America. One of her proudest achievements, she notes, was providing guidance to endow the Mazda2 and MX-5 with that ‘driver focus’ that attracted her to the OEM in the first place. 

As tech becomes more important within the vehicle sphere, interdepartmental conversations have become more frequent, Takeuchi says. “We used to work only on what we were expected to, depending on the department we belonged to, and then we would pass the baton on to the next department; there was
a tendency to divide people vertically. 

“However, Mazda now values the idea of removing departmental barriers and co-creating as one team.
I work with individuals from many departments, but I have come to particularly value communication with frontline personnel, such as those in sales and public relations, both in Japan and abroad,” she reveals, pointing to the marque’s intrinsic customer-focus. 

To be successful in working as a team, it’s crucial to develop one’s understanding of the daily challenges of each area of the business, Takeuchi says: “It’s important to listen to what the other party is dealing with
and make them feel at ease about accepting your suggestions. Here, listening is also important.” 

Natural flair
Those synergies were said to be more imperative than ever for the MX-30 regime, which was headed
up by Takeuchi and began in 2015. Tasked with taking the SUV from concept to reality, the role involved coordinating and overseeing 1,000 members of staff. She says it was a program unlike any other. 

Mazda is aiming for a 90% reduction in well-to-wheel CO2 emissions fleet-wide by 2050 from the 2010 baseline, and it is not relying on electrification to accomplish this goal. The automotive manufacturer plans to achieve a 50% CO2 reduction by 2030, by which time 95% of its products will still have a combustion engine. That’s because, as Mazda states, electric options must be plausible beyond their ability to reduce tailpipe emissions. 

The MX-30 project presented an unusual challenge, and a raft of original technologies were examined during the R&D process, Takeuchi reveals. Engineers had to work with a powertrain that had no reference points beyond small-scale trials. Furthermore, the electric vehicle’s compatibility with external factors had to be validated, including regional charging infrastructure, grid carbon intensity, as well as wide-ranging customer expectations. 

In addition, the team decided to explore new materials applications within the cabin, such as recycled cork and PET. Meanwhile, the controls, seating and interior displays had to be calibrated to adopt Mazda-specific characteristics. 

For Takeuchi, working with those complications is a large part of what made the MX-30’s development so extraordinary. “The MX-30 is the most rewarding [program I’ve worked on]. We accumulated expertise on the development process and preparation of mass production of an EV. We also prepared electrification technologies that use a rotary engine as a power generator,” she says. 

“We are readying ourselves to offer solutions that meet the regulatory and infrastructure requirements of countries and regions around the world.”

Eco focus
On top of the ever-lengthening list of difficulties that must be tackled during each development cycle, the Covid-19 pandemic forced Mazda’s personnel to try out different working practices, such as flexible hours. According to Takeuchi, it has catalyzed a renewed focus on operational efficiency that will influence how future R&D programs are conducted. 

Nonetheless, Takeuchi believes the starting point for all projects will remain the same, and that alliances will be essential. “The biggest challenge we face in the next 10 years is co-existing with the environment – or simply, decarbonization. It is an issue that we as a society must address, not only with technologies incorporated in automobiles, such as electrification tech, but also with cleaner technologies to generate electricity and the development of infrastructure,” she stresses. 

“Recently emerging technologies in electrification and autonomous driving have drawn a lot of interest – we see them as solutions to issues linked to the environment and people, and believe that ‘people’ should be the main protagonists of the story.”

Landing the position as Mazda’s first ever female program manager in 2015 was a dream come true for Takeuchi, who  was entrusted with leading  the development of the MX-30,  the manufacturer’s inaugural  all-electric production vehicle

New ground
Mazda first introduced its virtual test suite in 1996. Its role was broadened in 2000 to reduce product time-to-market, halve the size of Mazda’s prototype fleets and facilitate easier collaboration across continents with colleagues at Ford at the time. 

An integral testing tool today, Takeuchi says the company’s engineers are still finding new ways to leverage simulation. “For the MX-30, applying model-based development to more areas was essential. This included safety development, especially to develop protection for the battery, and heat control [mechanisms]for the battery. As a result, we have been able to develop an EV with a freestyle door design and packaging without a central pillar,” Takeuchi explains. 

In addition, simulation has an indirect role in reducing the company’s environmental footprint, as Takeuchi comments: “Our mission is to develop safe products that please customers, using processes that are more efficient and eco-friendlier. As [simulation]technology advances, the number of prototype vehicles that we need to build will dwindle.”

Shining example
In addition to the impressive catalog of achievements on Tomiko Takeuchi’s résumé, she has become a role model for women within the marque and across the industry. At Mazda, the female pipeline is said to be strong, and Takeuchi says the company is both supportive and welcoming as an employer. 

She believes, however, that there’s plenty of room for more women to enter the industry to tip the balance, and she encourages others to follow in her career footsteps. 

“There are still very few women in the industry, and I think this works in my favor as people remember my face, which helps me in my work,” Takeuchi says. 

“I hope for women to be tenacious and passionate in selecting the work they want to do, and that once they’ve decided, they never give up. One needs tenacity to carry one’s work through to the end. And what drives one to do so is passion – how deeply you are in love with what you do. I hope all young female professionals feel this way toward their work.” 

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Alex Grant is a freelance automotive and technology journalist with over a decade of experience working for consumer, B2B and corporate clients.

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