Kevin Hunter is president of Calty Design Research, Toyota's design studio in Newport Beach, which he says "exists to advance design" and to perform "experimental design," although there are production versions that roll out of there, too (e.g., the FJ Cruiser was originally a Calty concept; the Matrix was designed there, as were the third-generation Avalon and the second-generation Scion xB), Hunter says, "Mainly we're here to understand the U.S. market and to create ideas for this market." He says the primary question they ask, then, is, "What does the American buyer need?"
For the past several years, it seems as though the main answer to that question was "A truck." It should come as no surprise that the styling for the current-generation Tundra pickup-the one that is considered by some as the first bona fide full-sized truck produced by Toyota, previous generations of the Tundra not making the mark-was performed at Calty. So one of the latest undertakings at Calty was, not surprisingly, a truck-and realize that Hunter notes that Calty usually does "one or two concept cars a year." Trucks continue to be important to Toyota. But this is something of a different approach to trucks. Hunter admits, for example, that the Tacoma, Toyota's "compact" truck has grown. Somehow the adjective "compact" doesn't seem all that fitting for a vehicle with an overall length ranging from 190.4 in. to 208.1 in., depending on the cab configuration. "We thought this was a great time to reinvigorate and investigate the compact truck," he says, explaining that regulations like CAFE and societal concerns like the environment and gas prices are factors that come into play. So working with the Toyota Motor Sales Advanced Product Strategy Group, the Calty personnel went to work and came up with the A-BAT concept. That's Advanced-Breakthrough Aerodynamic Truck. A-BAT sounds less pretentious. It has an overall length of 181.3 in., and has a 4-ft. bed. But with the pass-through midgate folded down into the cab, there's an additional 2 ft. of bed, and with the tailgate opened, there are two more feet. Yes, the A-BAT can accommodate a 4 x 8-ft. sheet of plywood.
There are several ways to think about the A-BAT. One of them is as the pickup truck variant of a Prius, as there are trapezoidal sides in common, and the A-BAT, like the Prius, utilizes a hybrid drive system. Hunter acknowledges that the truck is not designed for a full-bore load-and-lug application, as the four-cylinder engine/hybrid system combo is for light-duty payloads and limited towing: "A jet ski-no problem." You won't see an A-BAT commercial, should the concept become a product, lugging a railroad car or loaded with a ton of bricks or something similarly absurdly extreme. And will it go into production? Well, Hunter, who provides the obligatory statement about not talking about future products and points out that the reason that vehicles like this one are shown at auto shows is in order to gauge consumer reaction, says, "Our whole point of doing concept cars is because we want to do a production car. Why else use the resources?" In Toyota-speak, one could argue that a concept car (or truck) for concept car's sake is nothing more than an example of muda, or waste. Certainly a no-no in that culture.* Another way to think about the A-BAT is as a direction of future vehicles: Hunter suggests that people are going to start considering the appropriateness of vehicles for particular uses; while big trucks will not go away, he believes that people may want alternatives to the full-size when something smaller will do.
Hunter says that Calty designers and Toyota engineers are working more closely together in order to realize what he calls "appropriate solutions." One of the issues that designers are grappling with is that of efficiency, which he says is being embraced more and more, despite the fact that some in the design community have considered it to be something of a nasty word. "If we're not thinking about it, we're going to come up with solutions that don't fit the time," he says, pointing out that by considering efficiency when developing vehicles it "Gets beyond the notion of just styling-beautiful lines and graphics."
One part of efficiency is, of course, image, "image perceived as being smart, intelligent, a good choice." Another part is cost. "We always, always talk about cost. It is a business, so you have to consider cost," Hunter says. He uses A-BAT as an example. It has a hybrid. A hybrid powertrain is more expensive than a conventional internal combustion engine. "We know that if we want to bring this in at a certain cost and that the hybrid is going to cost more, we have to think more cleverly about other areas-shift money to where it is needed." He says that the way to accomplish this is to determine what's important to the customer, and then make sure that the money is put where the customer values it and money is shifted from areas where it isn't.
But it comes down to the customer. "If you don't think deeply about the customer, you're not going to have a successful product."
*Another vehicle introduced at the 2008 North American International Auto Show was the 2009 Toyota Venza, a crossover sedan, which will go into production late in '08 at Toyota Motor Manufacturing Kentucky (Georgetown). That's right: crossover sedan. Essentially, this is designed more like a sedan than like a faux SUV, as some other crossovers are. It has seating for five passengers. It has a low rocker for ease of ingress and egress but a higher ride height than is the norm for sedans. The Venza was designed by Calty (in both its Newport Beach and Ann Arbor, MI, facilities), and primarily engineered at the Toyota Technical Center in Ann Arbor. So while the A-BAT is still an iffy proposition at this point, the Venza is going to happen.