“SATOSHI OGISO was 32 in 1993 when he took on the task of building what Toyota, his employer, vaguely thought of as the car of the future. The deadline was the start of the 21st century. In America at that time car designers were sketching gas-guzzlers or sport-utility vehicles. But Mr Ogiso’s team, mostly in their early 30s, wanted to create something that would “do the Earth good”, as he puts it. Within two years they had come up with Toyota’s hybrid technology, in which a battery powers the car for short distances and a petrol engine kicks in at higher speeds, recharging the battery. Within four years they had their first Prius on the road.
Now there are 2m of them and Toyota has a prototype plug-in version that can be charged at home, like other electric vehicles, but has a petrol engine for long distances. In Toyota’s more distant vision, the home (built, of course, by Toyota’s housing division) will be solar-powered, which will cut emissions even further. And at night, when demand is low, the home may even be plugged into the hybrid car, which will have recharged its battery from the engine.
This is the kind of thing you would expect from Japanese manufacturing, with its focus on craftsmanship, or monozukuri. Mr Ogiso’s project exemplifies some of the strongest traits: teamwork, in-house development and a desire to earn glory for the company. What was different was the engineers’ ages. All young, they were given the freedom to follow their instincts, with no middle managers to second-guess them. “The senior engineers could not understand the hybrid engineering,” chuckles Mr Ogiso.
The tradition of in-house innovation runs deep in Japan, and some of the resulting products may help the country to adapt to an ageing society. Bill Hall at Synovate, a market-research company, reels off a list of new products that are already available, or will be soon: the Toto intelligent toilet that can detect the level of sugar in urine; Panasonic’s robotic bed that turns into a wheelchair; Toyota’s battery-powered individual three-wheeler, with built-in sensors to avoid collisions.”
The Economist Nov 18th 2010 | from PRINT EDITION Pp.10; Read full article here