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Toyota Engineers Talk Cool Tech, Favorite 4x4s, and Automotive Innovation

We asked Toyota engineers about the most innovative technology they get to use to build vehicles, what their first 4x4 was, what their DIY projects are—and what they’re watching on Netflix.

Jobs in cars. Is there anything better? We certainly never forget how lucky we are to get paid to write about and breathe 4x4s, 24/7, 365. But imagine being someone whose job is to build vehicles from the ground up, using the most futuristic automotive technology ever. Well, we had a chance to play the 5 Questions game with a few of those such people in the form of Toyota engineers, who gave us the scoop on what innovations they like in vehicles (including those not branded Toyota), who owns a Jeep, and what exactly they do for a living (attention: STEM fans).

Aaron Weidenaar, Engineer (Engineering Design Chassis)

Job duties: Bushing and shock absorber development.

Coolest equipment/technology for getting things done: Access to the Prototype Development building and Toyota Collaborative Benchmarking Center are the coolest. First of all, the PD building allows you to go and see how your parts are made/assembled on a mini production line. The TCBC allows all engineers to see how the competition is solving problems.

First 4x4 (or car or truck): '04 Toyota Land Cruiser

Neat tech—yours or theirs: Levers in vehicles. Levers are mechanical, simple, and reliable. If there's a problem with the mechanism attached to the lever, customers can get a hint with physical feedback from the lever. Transfer case stuck? Lever is stuck. Transmission vibration? Gear lever vibrates. HVAC controls not working? You get it. They are heavy and deemed "old fashioned" by many, but I'm a huge fan of the mechanical connection to the vehicle. It is a good reminder of how mechanical vehicles are at the end of the day.

Currently watching, reading, or tackling as a project: I purchased my '04 Land Cruiser in January. It has 300,000 miles on it. I'm fixing a few odds and ends and going through maintenance with a fine-tooth comb.

Shannon Wrobel, Senior Engineer

Job duties: Hybrid Vehicle Drivability calibration through software development, testing, analysis, and confirmation.

Coolest equipment/technology for getting things done: Vehicle software—there are endless possibilities with vehicle software development, including logic development and value to tuning to control vehicle operation. It's fascinating!

First 4x4 (or car or truck): Subaru Crosstrek.

Neat tech—yours or theirs: I think EV technology is really reaching new heights. I had the opportunity to drive a Tesla Model X P100D in Ludicrous mode, and as a rollercoaster lover, it was amazing! I'm really interested to see how future EV trucks, such as Rivian R1T and Bollinger B2, perform on- and off-road.

Currently watching, reading, or tackling as a project: I am working to get my Toyota MR2 Spyder ready for summer cruising (once COVID-19 concerns have passed). I got it last year with some engine ticking, so I went through a couple checks: changed the fluids, compression check, and finally swapped out the engine rod bearings to fix the issue. Now it's running smooth—just cleaning up the interior and performing general maintenance. Also, in my spare time I have been enjoying the cutthroat drama in Formula 1: Drive to Survive on Netflix.

Dan Rich, Sr. Manager, Fuel Cell Development, Gardena Operation Support

Job duties: I manage a group of technicians that is responsible for measuring emissions for Toyota vehicles as well as other projects that our calibration group has for emissions development. I am also responsible for keeping our facility up to date and providing the tools and equipment to all our technicians and engineers.

Coolest equipment/technology for getting things done: Fuel cell/hydrogen technology is very cool. I have always been a fossil fuel guy, but I also know that we need a renewable energy source if we want mobility into the future. I also enjoy working with our chassis dynos and making sure they are maintained and upgraded to be able to measure the smallest amount of emissions gases to make sure our cars and trucks run clean for many years.

First 4x4 (or car or truck): My very first 4x4 was a '72 Dodge Power Wagon with a stepside bed, big lift and "huge" 31-inch tires, but the one that really made an impression was a '75 Toyota Land Cruiser 40 series before they were cool. I was looking for a Jeep CJ-5 in 1981 when I came across this Land Cruiser and never looked back. I've been a Toyota 4x4 owner ever since. I've owned many Toyota 4x4s, including almost every series of Land Cruiser and Hilux or Tacoma. I did briefly own a '96 Land Rover Discovery but never got to take it off-road because it was always broken!

Neat tech—yours or theirs: I think cameras are probably the most useful feature that I have used, and now with multiple angles, front, side, and even "disappearing trailer" cameras, I have to think that they are the new normal in what customers are going to expect from all manufacturers. Being able to operate all cameras on demand while on a trail would be very cool.

Currently watching, reading, or tackling as a project: One of my favorite YouTube channels is Australia's 4WD Action with Shaun [Whale] and Graham [Cahill]. These guys do some great vehicle modifications, travel some incredible trails, and the action is always on, no manufactured drama, just real four-wheeling situations and real action. As far as projects, my '95 Land Cruiser 80 series is always a work in progress, fitted for comfortable long-term backcountry travel. Onboard air compressor and tank and utilizing hidden storage have been my latest projects.

Skylar Watson, Engineer at Toyota Motor North America R&D

Job duties: I work in a department that has many responsibilities supporting vehicle development. One portion of our work focuses on screening prototype vehicles prior to vehicle launch. We get to be the first customers of the vehicle. This entails putting the vehicle in customer scenes that reflect the predicted use of that vehicle. Think minivan for long road trips and trucks for off-roading, each target customer uses the vehicle in unique ways. It's our job to detect items that would be viewed as an issue to a customer, both big and small.

Coolest equipment/technology for getting things done: I believe the coolest piece of equipment/technology we get to use are the vehicles themselves, cop-out answer I know. Let me explain. Toyota's dependability and reliability truly amazes me, both as an engineer and a customer. A concrete example occurred this winter; we parked a vehicle outside overnight at temps at or below -30 C for 12+ hours. In the morning the vehicle started fine, drove flawlessly, and all features and accessories were functioning unharmed. Pretty impressive technology if you ask me.

First 4x4 (or car or truck): My first vehicle was a 1994 Jeep Wrangler YJ, which I still have today.

Neat tech—yours or theirs: I like the front window vent feature found on older vehicles. I thought this was a pretty impressive way to get some great fresh air in the cabin without committing to having your window completely down. I know OEMs have moved away from these type of simple designs for more tech, but sometimes the simple things in life are what bring joy!

Currently watching, reading, or tackling as a project: This would be the never-ending project of my daily driver, a 2014 MGM Toyota Tacoma. This is a fun platform for a truck to be creative on. I've made a custom bed rack for the RTT and have a front/rear bumper design in the works. The best part of this project will be in the future when my younger son can help more. Off-road vehicles are a way for us to all spend some quality time together, be it sitting in them, working on them, or talking about them.

Aaron Steinhilb, Principal Engineer Vehicle Performance Pedestrian Protection

Job duties: We evaluate the injuries that occur to pedestrians when they are struck by a vehicle. We develop structures that mitigate the risk and severity of injuries to the head and legs mainly.

Coolest equipment/technology for getting things done: We use a flexible pedestrian legform. It is a highly instrumented and calibrated "dummy" leg that we shoot at 40 kph into the front of each vehicle to understand injuries to the bones in the legs and ligaments in the knee.

First 4x4 (or car or truck): My first real 4x4 was a 1978 CJ-5. I rebuilt everything in the drivetrain, added ARB lockers, rebuilt the transfer case with 4:1 gears, made body armor, and added an OME lift.

Neat tech—yours or theirs: Pedestrian protection usually pushes the front of the vehicle forward and lower (reducing the approach angle) and makes front-mounted recovery hooks almost impossible. Due to all of these things, I would like to see the "luxury" vehicle adaptable suspensions (suspension height and adaptable damping) like on Mercedes G-Wagon trickle down to more modest trucks and SUVs.

Currently watching, reading, or tackling as a project: I'm building a 2004 Jeep TJ; the plan is to design a new suspension starting with Dana 60 axles, body armor, and a full rollcage. I'm currently wheeling with my 2016 GX460. It is a real sleeper, and its abilities impress me constantly. I love the looks I get when it's twisted up on the trails.

Nick Ruark, Senior Engineering Manager Chassis

Job duties: Management of a group responsible for development of suspension and axle components for Toyota's body-on-frame vehicles.

Coolest equipment/technology for getting things done: FEA. I just enjoy tuning a part shape to improve the strength.

First 4x4 (or car or truck): Toyota 4Runner.

Neat tech—yours or theirs: Jaguar independent rear suspension (e-type and many others)—a very simple design that was unique at the time when most vehicles had solid rear axles. (I have a modified version under a 1963 Ford Falcon that I am working on.)

Currently watching, reading, or tackling as a project: I have a 1991 Toyota Land Cruiser 70 series that I imported from Japan, with a 1HD-FT (inline-six turbodiesel) from a Japan-market 80 series Land Cruiser that I fully rebuilt and swapped in. Currently in the middle of rebuilding a winch for the front.

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