Amazing ride for a Toyota employee from factory to leading role in Connected Vehicles
Kaori Hasegawa

One of the hottest automotive topics of the moment, Connected Vehicles are a vital part of future mobility which will be more technologically advanced, safer and convenient.  At the Paris Motor Show yesterday, Akio Toyoda, President and CEO of Toyota Motor Corp., announced a new partnership with Microsoft who will be the technical partner and main sponsor of the Yaris WRC in 2017, and explained how connected vehicles and autonomous cars will be an important part of Toyota’s future.

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18 years ago, Steve Basra joined one of Toyota plants in the UK as a graduate engineer. Steve now works as Vice President for a new Toyota company, Toyota Connected which aims to establish Toyota’s successful presence in Connected Vehicles.

Having heard that Steve was coming back to Brussels for 2 days, I asked to borrow an hour of his time with two questions on the agenda: What brought you where you are today? What is Toyota trying to do in the area of Connected Vehicle?

Amazing journey started at Toyota factory in UK

Asked about his career path, Steve started by saying, with a big, open smile: “I love my job and I have loved working for Toyota from day one.”

“In 1998, after university, I applied for the graduate programme offered by Toyota Manufacturing UK. I distinctively remember the interview. My future manager inspired me by saying: ‘In IT for Toyota, you will have the opportunity to work in a lot of different areas and move around depending on what you are interested in.’ “

“This became one of the factors why I decided to work for Toyota.”

“During my 6 years at the UK plant I worked in many different areas, supporting different business groups such as HR, Accounting & Finance, Purchasing, Japan parts ordering and logistics. It was a good foundation of being able to understand Toyota’s business from a manufacturing point of view.”

“At that time, the work to create a new Toyota company to oversee all the plants in Europe was kicking off. We started to collaborate more with Toyota European Sales & Marketing company in Brussels.”

“Soon after, I had an offer to work at Toyota Motor Engineering & Manufacturing in North America. I was surprised, but jumped at the opportunity. I ended up working in Kentucky for 4 years, where I gained invaluable experience as well as making some lifelong friends. This was my first experience of living outside of the UK and my wife and I loved every minute of it! It certainly changed the way we began to see things and our outlook on life.”

“Afterwards, I was asked to relocate again, this time to Belgium and to work in Research & Development and Production Engineering IT. It was during this period that our head of IS asked me to start looking into the topic of Connected Vehicles.  To this day, I attribute my career in this particular area to our leader’s insight and forward thinking.”

“With my management and colleagues of Toyota Motor Europe, I started up the IS Telematics Group in 2008.”

“I loved it. I loved the whole concept of Connected Vehicles. You are working in technology, but at the same time you are an integral part of the vehicles development. Over the next 6 years we slowly built up the IS Telematics Group next to other groups responsible for product planning and development. Together as a team, we started developing services for Connected Vehicles.”

“In 2014, I was asked to go to Toyota in Japan and work as part of Toyota’s Global IT group. Again, it was an unbelievable opportunity – living in Japan, being able to work in our company’s headquarters and get a perspective on how they actually operate.”

“My year in Japan was fantastic. Japan is a very easy country to live and play in. We travelled extensively throughout Asia, and, it was quite possibly the best year of our lives! I enjoyed working at Toyota in Japan – it was really interesting and eye-opening.”

“During my stay in Japan, I got an offer to go back to North America and work in Telematics again. My role was to lead the Telematics IS group bringing some of my experience and knowledge. Soon after my arrival to the US, Toyota Connected was announced, and I was asked to join and lead the technology group.”

“For me, working in a global company such as Toyota Connected is truly an amazing opportunity.”

“It has been a fascinating journey from the factory in Derby, UK where I joined as a graduate, to where I am today, at Toyota Connected in Texas. This is due to rotation opportunities that Toyota has allowed me to take and I am truly thankful for them. “

“This is why I will always tell people, ‘If you have an opportunity to rotate, you should take it.’ Rotation does come with hardship – leaving family, friends and the teams that you work with behind. But, as a person, you grow immensely and you get to travel and see the world.”

“The other thing that helps with moving, is that quite simply, I love my job. I am the type of person that walks into work with a smile on my face. I enjoy working with my teams and the team members, whom I consider as friends.”

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Toyota Connected and future mobility

“The goal of Toyota Connected is to enhance the customer experience – to implement more technology while eliminating the tyranny of technology for the end consumer.”

“Our vehicles are becoming so complicated with all the functions we implement. Our goal is that technology should be intuitive and predictive. It means that technology should be available and visible only when you need it.”

“We want to propel Toyota in the Connected Vehicle space, and we want Toyota to become a leader and not a follower. We have a lot of current issues to resolve and most certainly, we will also face issues in the future.”

“Our mission is to take technology to the next level and ensure that it works seamlessly. We want to really understand what the consumer does, and based on this, provide solutions without the consumer asking for them.”

“For example, imagine: if your car could read your emails and text messages while you are driving, and determine if the subject of the message is related to your journey. If the location of the meeting you are travelling to has changed, if your flight has been delayed, or if your partner has asked you to pick something up on the way home from work… your car could then take action based on the content.  This is not only convenient, but it also improves safety stopping people using their phones while driving.”

“For me, if your car could do that, THAT is amazing. Technology wise it’s challenging, but, from a user’s point of view, it seems like such a simple idea.”

“We want to take complex technology and make it simple, so that the consumer doesn’t have to think about it. That experience would be a ‘wow moment’. That’s the key. How can we create that moment, when the customer would think: ‘Wow, wasn’t it cool that this worked?’ ”

“I think that’s what the consumers will be looking for in the future. When I saw people try the fingerprint reader on their i-Phone for the first time, they went: ‘Wow, cool! It works!’  It shows how a very simple idea, that is very complicated to implement, can be done in such a brilliant way.”

“How do we capture those moments, how do we create those experiences that the consumers want and will love? This is what we are trying to get to. This will make them think of Toyota when they will buy their next vehicle, because they love what the Toyota vehicle can do for them. “

“Another area which we are working on is connecting vehicle safety features.”

“We already have the ADAS (Advanced Driver Assistance Systems) in the car, which can detect obstacles and activate automatic braking. We have taken the existing ADAS systems in some test vehicles and connected them to the cloud. We have used this information to create predictive machine learning models.”

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“Now, if a number of cars have triggered the same alert in the same spot, we can pretty much predict that there is an obstacle in the road. You can send this information to the other cars coming up to the location. You can warn them before they get to that spot, saying, ‘There is an obstacle coming up. Please move into the right-hand lane.’”

“This is one of the use cases we can start thinking about. It’s about using what is already there, but, adding the power of the cloud and technology to enhance things.”

“Our goal as Toyota Connected is to realise such functionalities in future Toyota vehicles. We are not a research company, our goal is not to just come up with lots of ideas. Our goal is to prove that these ideas are possible, and, work with TMC to try to implement them. “

When I said, “It sounds like the cloud is the game changer,” Steve agreed. “The cloud is the key. Connectivity is the key. Once we have connectivity to the cloud, we can do so many new things that we previously could never do.”

For a taste of the goals of Toyota Connected, watch this video

At the centre of collaboration

Steve went on to explain a few other things to help us understand how different initiatives under the Connected Vehicle umbrella are intertwined.

We are collaborating with Microsoft. In practical terms, this means that Microsoft has a 10% participation in the capital of Toyota Connected and Microsoft engineers work alongside Toyota members at Toyota Connected. Why Microsoft? Microsoft is a technology leader and they have said that they are not interested in building cars. Google, Apple and Amazon are not the same. All these technology companies are trying to get into autonomous vehicles. Microsoft has categorically said that they are not doing that. So, it’s a good opportunity for us to get access to the latest technology and experts, which ordinarily wouldn’t be possible.”

“The role of Toyota Research Institute (TRI) is very specific, focused on solving the complicated problems of autonomous vehicles. For Toyota Connected, our mission is to create connected services and how to implement them. We are partnering with TRI, because we have the data that they need in order to solve their problems.”

KDDI is creating a global communications platform. It’s linked to what we are doing. Their goal is to provide the connectivity from a global perspective, try to negotiate and make sure that we get the best deal, and simplify the connectivity of all vehicles around the world.”

Toyota Insurance Management is about how we market and sell usage-based insurance. It’s a particular service for which they need vehicle data in order to create driver scoring models. They are working very closely with us.”

What I love most in my career

Steve had one more thing to share that revealed the source of his passion for Toyota.

“When I first joined Toyota, as part of graduate training, we worked on the shop floor of a Toyota plant for 3 months. To this day, I would still say that this was the single best introduction to the world of Toyota.”

“At Toyota Connected, we have started hiring some new data science interns and we will take them to the manufacturing plant in Kentucky so that they get similar exposure.  During an interview, one of the interns asked me: ‘Do you think that I should work for Toyota after I graduate?’”

“My answer to him was simple: ‘When we take you to our plant in Kentucky, when you walk into the plant, when you see those cars being made – if you are not amazed, if you are not excited about what you see, maybe you should not work for Toyota.”

“For me, each time I go to a manufacturing plant and see our cars being built, I am always proud. If you are passionate about the cars we make, that’s going to serve you well in your career at Toyota. It doesn’t matter which department in Toyota you work for. We all contribute to the success of Toyota in different ways.”

“I work for Toyota and I just happen to be in IT. That’s how I see it. I’m not an IT person who just happens to work for Toyota.”

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