Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Toyota in the sky

Recent flights of the Toyota Advanced Aircraft (or TAA-1) at Mojave, along with some cryptic comments by Toyota about their aviation projects, has generated speculation that Toyota may be resurrecting the idea of entering the general aviation market. However, a Toyota North America spokesman said that the flights, which have taken place in late April and this past week, were a minor flight test operation that was unrelated to the TAA-1, and could have been accomplished with a rented Cessna, but the TAA-1 was used simply because it was available.

Toyota has made rumblings about becoming involved in the aviation world since the early 1990s. In March 1992, Toyota's senior executive in America, Yuki Togo told the Los Angeles Business Journal that the auto manufacturer was working with Burt Rutan and Scaled Composites to develop a six-passenger single-engine aircraft to be powered by an engine derived from an automobile engine, and Rutan had gone as far as putting together a preliminary airframe design. "My dream is to use an automotive engine for an airplane," Togo told the Journal.

In the early 1990s, Toyota began working with Hamilton Standard to develop a twin-turbocharged aircraft engine derived from its four liter V8 Lexus engine. This project resulted in the FV2400-2TC, a 360-horsepower fuel injected engine equipped with Hamilton Standard FADEC engine controls. Such an engine is twice as powerful as the non-Toyota powerplant used in the TAA-1. The FV2400 received FAA type certification in February 1996 and production certification in July 1997. Before the project was shelved, media reports indicated that the engines would be produced in Japan, and shipped to Hamilton Standard to be equipped with the FADEC controls, and it would be marketed in direct competition to engines produced by Teledyne Continental and Lycoming. Flight testing of the engine was done in a Piper Malibu, and though some media reports state that it was also tested in a “Burt Rutan-designed single”, it is unlikely that such a large engine was tried in the 4-place TAA-1. What’s more, there is some contention by industry experts that Toyota didn’t really plan on producing the engine, but rather it was an R&D exercise with the actual goal of getting their feet wet in the ways of product development, flight test and certification.

Then came the TAA-1. Its first flight at Mojave took place on May 31, 2002 (right), and was quickly followed by a flurry of media releases.

Burt Rutan commented on the Toyota project at the 2002 Oshkosh air show, and AVWeb writer Paul Bertorelli noted “Scaled has been hired to wring out what is essentially a Japanese design. Rutan says the airplane ‘has some aggressive composite manufacturing’ including single-cure technology for the wings and fuselage. It will also have Japanese-designed, user-friendly avionics similar to what's found in luxury cars such as the Lexus.”

In June 2002, Flight International reported that “US consultancy InterMatrix says it helped Toyota develop specifications and pricing for three aircraft: standard and high-end four-seaters and a six-seat piston single. Two designs were planned under the Toyota Advanced Aircraft banner: the fixed-gear TAA-1 and retractable-gear TAA-2.” FI further reported, “Toyota confirms it is studying the potential market to replace around 200,000 older general aviation aircraft now flying in the USA. ‘There is a potential for a business opportunity here, which is why we are studying it,’ the company says, but it is stressing the project could be abandoned if the market does not prove viable.” With the ensuing silence on the project, one wonders if the Toyota strategists decided that indeed the U.S. general aviation market didn’t have the depth to support such a large scale endeavour.

In March 2008, Toyota made a media splash with the announcement that they were considering participating along with Mitsubishi Heavy Industries in the development of a Japanese-built 90-100 seat passenger jet. This would be the first Japanese designed and built airframe in decades (production of the YS-11 ended in 1974), and would put the new plane in direct competition with the Brazilian Embraer and Canadian Bombardier products. With Japanese focus now shifting to commercial aviation, does that mean that they’ve abandoned GA? Maybe not. In an AFP news article covering the commercial jet announcement, Toyota spokeswoman Kayo Doi said the company “was still involved in that research [related to the TAA-1] but declined comment on whether it had decided not to manufacture aircraft by itself. ‘We have been exploring the possibility of using an automobile engine in aircraft,’ she said.”

The Japanese business culture is well known to be very patient and to take the long view. Stay tuned, then…we may yet see Toyotas in the sky.

Further reading:
-Flight International article
-AFP article
-NY Times article
-Los Angeles Business Journal article-AVWeb article


Anonymous said...

Hi Alan,

In the early 90 to mid 90s, a scaled built aircraft for Toyota with a Lexus v-8 did fly. It even had air-conditioning, which was put in about 96-97'.

Alan Radecki said...

Hi Reuben,

Good to know! If you have any other info on it, please let me know. BTW, I tried to reply to the "you show me yours" email you sent a while back, and my reply keeps bouncing. The answer was "you bet!"

Ruben Su said...