Mazda races ahead as Japan's auto industry plays catch-up

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MINE, Japan — Mazda’s powertrain guru, Mitsuo Hitomi, can’t count how many times he nearly threw in the towel while working on the company’s new compression-ignition Skyactiv-X engine. It was Mazda’s moonshot effort to deliver more fuel efficiency and power, a mission that bigger rivals are struggling to bring to an intensifying world market.

But a sense of crisis spurred Hitomi and his team forward. As a result, pint-sized Mazda will soon roll out not only the new powerplant, but also a wave of next-generation powertrain technologies.

The competitive challenge is not merely Mazda’s. As Japan’s carmakers host the Tokyo Motor Show this week, Mazda’s urgency epitomizes the rush by Japan’s auto industry to play catch-up in an era of technological change.

“We thought if we failed at this, it was all over,” Hitomi recalled. “That’s the level of pressure.”

New demands for autonomous cars, electrification, artificial intelligence and new mobility are squeezing Japan’s automakers like never before. Their solutions for tackling the challenges will be on full display in Tokyo, but the country’s carmakers are in some ways just starting to respond.

Honda Motor Co. unveiled a detailed electric vehicle and autonomous driving road map only last summer after setting up an AI and robotics laboratory earlier in the year.

Longtime EV skeptic Toyota Motor Corp. established an EV division just 11 months ago. And despite huge investment, it has been slow to bring self-driving functions to the mass market. Toyota suddenly finds itself scrambling to find technology partners, no matter how small or obscure, who have the computing expertise the old-school automaker lacks.

Smaller rivals Subaru and Mitsubishi remain constrained by tight purse strings. Their best hope, for the time being, seems to be sheltering under Toyota’s umbrella.

Nissan Motor Co. is arguably the Japanese pioneer in EVs and autonomous driving. But even its ambitions seem diluted on the global stage by the onslaught of EVs from European rivals, self-driving technology from Silicon Valley and ride-hailing ventures from Detroit.

Toyota Chairman Takeshi Uchiyamada perhaps best summed up the prevailing angst.

“We have an urgent sense of crisis,” said Uchiyamada, who helped build Toyota’s reputation as a technology leader in an earlier era by developing the first-generation Prius hybrid. “New players are increasing in numbers, and they could possibly change the current landscape.”

The challenges facing Mazda, one of Japan’s smallest carmakers, are especially acute.

With global volume of just 1.6 million vehicles and an r&d budget one-eighth the size of Toyota’s, Mazda has long lacked the scale for gambits on costly futuristic technology.

But now it’s make or break.

In a bid to stay competitive, CEO Masamichi Kogai is poised to unleash a blitz of technologies through 2021 that cover electrification, connectivity and autonomous driving.

Executives outlined the game plan during a technology showcase here at the Hiroshima carmaker’s proving ground in western Japan.

New architecture

The push kicks off in 2019 with a new vehicle architecture that will simplify manufacturing by underpinning nearly every vehicle in Mazda’s lineup, from the CX-9 large crossover to possibly the Mazda2 subcompact hatchback. The architecture will weigh less, cost less and deliver a quieter ride with crisper handling and better rigidity.

The platform’s floor pan was designed to accommodate batteries for electrified cars.

In that same year, Mazda will add an EV and a mild hybrid vehicle.

Also in 2019, the carmaker will launch a new generation of its Mazda Connect on-the-go infotainment system. The company isn’t providing details about it but hints at something akin to ride-hailing. Mazda is calling it a “new business model that enables car owners to support the needs of people in depopulated areas and those who have difficulty getting around.”

The rollout continues into 2020 with an autonomous driving function dubbed Co-pilot and a second-generation Skyactiv-D diesel engine. A plug-in hybrid vehicle wraps up the drive in 2021.

Key to the campaign is Mazda’s Skyactiv-X engine, Hitomi’s long-shot gamble.

Mazda calls it the world’s first workable compression-ignited gasoline engine and said it will deploy the engine in the fiscal year ending March 31, 2019.

By combining the best traits of diesel and gasoline engines for ultraclean power, Mazda said, Skyactiv-X will boost torque by up to 30 percent and improve fuel efficiency by up to 30 percent over its current Skyactiv-G direct-injection engines, which the automaker introduced in 2011.

Skyactiv-X can be mated to a hybrid system, and the company envisions offering it as a top-tier option alongside the older-generation Skyactiv-G engines in the early years of its introduction.

Long road

Mazda has been developing the engine for more than eight years, Hitomi said, fiddling with countless variations of air-fuel mix, combustion chamber shape and combustion pressure ratios.

“I can’t say how many times we got lost. So, so many times,” Hitomi said, conceding there were many sleepless nights when he simply wanted to spike the entire project.

It was difficult, but Mazda had few options.

The company’s small size meant it had to keep a laser focus on its strengths in old-school internal combustion technology without spreading itself too thin, Hitomi said.

“Companies that have lots of money and people also have lots of alternatives,” Hitomi said. “They are working on multiple things at the same time. But at Mazda, when we put people onto something, we decide that we will just focus on this one thing, and that’s it.”

When Kogai took office in June 2013, he inherited a company that had just recorded its first annual profit in five years. Today Mazda is much stronger, thanks to the first generation of Skyactiv vehicles that debuted in 2012 with new powertrains, platforms and styling.

He now promises that Skyactiv-X will usher in another upswing.

“With this, we’re going to jump,” he said. “We are going with a multisolution approach.”

During a test drive of a prototype 2.0-liter supercharged Skyactiv-X engine and next-generation vehicle platform, the system delivered noticeably peppier punch than the current Skyactiv-G setup. Engineers conceded the occasional jerk while shifting between spark and compression ignition modes. But they assured they will smooth it out.

If it seems like tiny Mazda is biting off more than it can chew, the carmaker has an extra ace in its pocket: a conveniently timed partnership with the richest carmaker in Japan — Toyota.

In August, Mazda entered a capital alliance with Toyota, saying they would team on everything from manufacturing and self-driving cars to EV development.

But at the Tokyo show, Toyota will offer a peek at what it hopes to bring to the table. Its stand will run the gamut of new technologies, starting with a matte black GR HV Sports concept with an electrified hybrid drivetrain inspired by Toyota’s high-tech Le Mans race car.

There will also be a new liquefied petroleum gas hybrid taxi that Toyota hopes will be plying the streets of Tokyo by the time the Japanese capital hosts the 2020 Summer Olympics.

Toyota also will look further into the future with not just a new hydrogen fuel cell concept car but a hydrogen fuel cell bus. Finally, on the new mobility front, it will expand its reach into autonomous driving and AI with a pod car and a Segway-like trike device.

It is a swath of vehicles only a company Toyota’s size might have the ambition to imagine. But even Toyota knows that it needs help.

The company’s Concept-i electric four-seater and its Concept-i Ride two-seat companion pod car boast AI systems that can read human emotions and talk with the driver. Toyota will start field testing the technology in 2020.

To bring the AI products to life, Toyota will work with outside suppliers instead of developing them in-house. In the new era, even giants such as Toyota feel the pressure to join hands.

“We need to install breakthrough technologies into vehicles,” Uchiyamada said. “We could do all that on our own, but that would take too much time. I’d have to say it is a race against time.”

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