2014 Toyota Tundra: Engineer It Like You Own It

Article From: 10/3/2013 Automotive Design & Production, , Editor-in-Chief from Gardner Business Media, Inc.

Although you don’t hear a lot these days about “empathy,” if you’re going to be engineering a product (to say nothing of designing or building it), it helps to know how it feels to use it. That’s the case with this new pickup.

Mike Sweers, chief engineer of the 2014 Toyota Tundra, not only engineers trucks, but drives one on the farm he owns in Michigan.

Note how the name of the truck is stamped into the tailgate. Further note that there is no giant Toyota logo on that tailgate. When asked why, chief engineer Mike Sweers answers that that sort of thing doesn’t necessarily fit well with truck owners. And while it might seem as though the stamped name is simply a simple thing to do, a team of designers from Calty in California, engineers from the Toyota Technical Center in Michigan, and manufacturing personnel from the plant in Texas determined that in cases where competitors were taking the stamped approach, the results tended to have wrinkles or other imperfections that they found unacceptable. So they went at trying to figure out how to stamp the name into the sheet metal, which lead them to reduce the radii on the edges of the letters.

One of the goals was to have five distinct truck grades, from the base work truck to the top end, including the 1794 Edition. (1794? The San Antonio location of Toyota Motor Manufacturing Texas, a $2.2-billion facility where 2,900 people have the capacity to produce >200,000 trucks per year, is a former ranch that was established that year.) One interesting aspect of the interior of the 1794 Edition is that the leather used for the seats is the same leather used to cover the seats in the Lexus LS 460. Presumably, this has a little something to do with chief engineer Mike Sweers’ experience as vice president of Interiors at Toyota Technical Center in Ann Arbor.

While Toyota’s share of the full-size truck market is small as compared with those of Ford, Chevrolet/GMC, and Ram, Bill Fay, group vice president and general manager of Toyota Motor Sales, points out that combined with other light trucks in the company’s lineup (especially the midsize Tacoma, which is dominant in its segment, in part because Ford, Ram and GM don’t have offerings there (although the Chevy Colorado and GMC Canyon are scheduled for 2014), the overall share of Toyota has in trucks is 18%, approximately what it has in the passenger car market. Both the Tundra and the Tacoma are produced at Toyota Motor Manufacturing Texas in San Antonio.

With all due respect, the first generation Toyota Tundra (2000-2006) was not a “full-size pickup” in the context of what pickup people consider to be “full-size pickups.” Sure, it was dimensionally larger than the T-100 pickup that preceded it, but when you have the largest in the lineup, the Double Cab, with an overall length of 230.1 in., that may be sizable but that size isn’t full. So when the second-generation Tundra was launched as a MY 2007 vehicle, Toyota proudly noted that the “All-new, second-generation 2007 Tundra full-size pickup truck is larger in every dimension than the model it replaces.”

That one is the real full-size truck.

And the point of this is that while the brand new Tundra is called the “third-generation” vehicle, arguably it is really the second full-size. Consider: the overall length of the regular cab 2014 Tundra is 228.9 in., a mere 1.2 in. less than the first-gen Double. What’s more—and it is considerably more—the overall length of the ’14 Double Cab and CrewMax is 247.8 in., or a delta 
of 17.7 in.

Big matters in full-size trucks.

That said, if the ‘14 is taken to be gen three for Toyota, then third time is a charm.

And for a very good reason.

It’s like this: the U.S. market is the market for full-size pickups. You’re as likely to see a full-size on the streets of Europe or Asia as a yeti. So to create a product for a market, to come up with a solution to a problem, being there is essential.

The design firm IDEO (ideo.com) deploys a process called “design thinking.” IDEO president Tim Brown defines it thusly: “Design thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.”

There are generally five steps to design thinking: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, test.

And while there is the word “design” in the name, it doesn’t necessarily have to be performed just by designers (although it is certainly beneficial if designers do follow this methodology).

Which brings us to Mike Sweers. Sweers works at the Toyota Technical Center (TTC) in Ann Arbor. Sweers, formerly the vice president of Interiors at TTC (the relevance of this can be found in the 3rd photo caption on this page), is the chief engineer for the 2014 Tundra.

What does that have to do with design thinking? It so happens that in addition to his day job, Sweers owns a farm in Williamston, Michigan. He is a farmer. Hay. Dairy cattle. Maple syrup. A working farm. A family farm. He not only drives a truck (not surprising for a guy who is the chief engineer on a truck program; had he been the chief engineer for a Camry, he’d undoubtedly drive one of those; instead, it is a Tundra Double Cab with an eight-foot bed), but he actually uses a truck on his farm. So he has the empathy, he knows what a truck ought to be, he has ideas as to what it could be, and he’s tested possible approaches. In other words, design thinking methods were used in creating the ’14 Tundra. (Sweers’ wife and kids also drive trucks.)

Sweers talks about the rear bumper on his truck (the one on the farm, not the ’14 Tundra). He admits that what is on the ’14 is a result of “a personal request from me.” Sweers has high school kids work on his farm. One not great consequence of that is that he’s had to replace the bumper on his truck three times: hitching up equipment to the back is not all that easy a task when you’re not as experienced as you might be.

The first thing that he wanted was a thicker gauge material so that it would be able to withstand more abuse, so they designed a truss to provide additional rigidity. But then, Sweers explains, they went further, and designed the rear bumper in three sections that are bolted together. In the event of a crunch, it may be that just one section needs to be replaced rather than the whole thing. This, he says, is of great benefit to the savings accounts of Tundra buyers. (Another benefit he cites is in the warehouses where parts are inventoried: less space is required to accommodate the smaller sections.)

In addition to which: there is a standard backup camera on the ’14 model. He’s really interested in not having to replace rear bumpers, as plenty other people probably are, as well.

One of the things that goes to the point of his living and working on a farm is that Sweers is consistent in his idea that there needs to be a return on investment: heck, there isn’t even the consideration of investment unless there is conceivable payback in some way. This purposefulness is reflected in the decision to continue to use the powertrains that have been used in Tundras, rather than develop new ones. There are a 5.7-liter, DOHC V8 that produces 381 hp @ 5,600 rpm and 401 lb-ft of torque @ 3,600 rpm; a 4.0-liter DOHC V6 that produces 270 hp @ 5,600 rpm and 278 lb-ft of torque @ 4,400 rpm; and a 4.6-liter DOHC V8 that produces 310 hp @ 5,600 rpm and 327 lb-ft of torque @ 3,400 rpm.

Speaking of the full-size truck buyer, Sweers says that “they are very conservative and looking for a bargain.” Consequently, he says that when it comes to things like start-stop systems and cylinder deactivation, “finding the ROI for customers is tough.” There isn’t, in effect, a whole lot of savings for the investment. Turbocharging is gaining in popularity, but Sweers explains that fuel economy can go down, particularly in heavy-load situations, when it is necessary to keep the catalysts cool by adding more fuel to the air-fuel mixture. So he didn’t see the point of pursuing that technology, either. “When we can give the customer a good return, you’ll see more powertrain variations in the future.”

And because the truck is primarily about work, they made sure that some elements were sufficiently robust to handle the job, like using machined-from-billet gears in the transfer case rather than powered metal gears and increasing the size of the driveshafts.

It is not as though Mike Sweers was the only person who developed the truck. Far from it. The vehicle was designed at the Toyota Calty studio in Newport Beach, CA. They brought production engineering people, plant engineering people, and even people from Toyota Motor Sales into Calty during the development process. It wasn’t a case of involvement after the fact. As designers were sketching, engineers were busy determining feasibility. “You usually start with a stretch design, then end up watering it down in order to make it manufacturable,” Sweers says. “Not with this one.”