The successful Tier 1s, typically, were kind of big turnkey, highly capable, highly engineered products. That ecosystem may be changing. We'll still be buying a lot of software and hardware traditionally, but as we evolve in this space, you're going to see more new ways of commercially engaging the supply base, like how do you buy software? Do you buy licenses? Do you buy time and materials? Who owns it? Who's responsible for validating it? Those are the big changes for the supply base. They have to be evolving into "What do you want to be in this ecosystem?" Do you want to be a strong hardware player with low overhead? Do you want to be a full systems supplier? Do you want to be a software supplier? Do you want to be an ecosystem supplier?
It's very complicated. We used to draw you the traditional relationship. Now the relationship, you can't even draw it on a flat sheet of paper. It's almost three-dimensional. It's a big challenge for them. It's a huge challenge for them because it's a huge impact to their revenue stream.
Q: What are some of the challenges of integrating sensors and electronics in vehicle exterior parts? Sensors and electronics usually rely on plastic housings. Are you researching this and navigating within that space?
Powell: As in so many things in the automotive industry, it's complicated, right? The idea of integrating incredibly expensive sensors. These are not $2 parts. Adding hundreds of dollars' worth of electronics to integrate into the part, while it may make overall sense, what happens when one of them breaks or a crash happens? They need to be replaceable, separately or together. So serviceability, durability and kind of bang for the buck. How much are you really saving by doing all that integration?
From a plastics point of view, the performance of the plastics — the requirements of the plastics — is changing. For example, shooting radar through them is a big deal. The material properties, the reflective properties, even when you paint it, for certain types of paint, those matter. We do a lot of design work when we put our radar behind a bumper fascia to make sure it performs properly and shoots through there, and we have to make sure it's going to stay that way. It's not just the strength performance, if you will, of the plastic parts, but also the electromagnetic signature, if you will, has to be known, understood.
Q: What is something that you don't have an answer to yet? What is your biggest unknown in the space that you work at within Toyota?
Powell: The hardest part of our job is this technology moves so fast, and we approach it from: Does it work like it's supposed to, and can we afford it? Does it achieve the safety or the performance we need? And is it priced in a way we can get it? Are people willing to pay for it? The hardest part is when we're making changes like that, is customer perception following what we can do? Are we lagging or leading?
It's often said that we're lagging. Customers want more than we're doing. And that's generally not an untrue statement, but there's sometimes where we can go too fast. We can introduce technologies and systems in the car that are too complicated. People don't understand them. They don't trust them. If you put a system in a car where the goal is to make it safer but the driver doesn't trust it, it hasn't done its job. The ability to predict how quickly people will adopt or come on board and say, "I trust my forward cameras to look at after me. I trust that these things are going to work and protect me." The rate of adoption in the real marketplace — we're not talking the niche marketplace, but the whole market — is really critical to us, and we pay a lot of attention to that.
Q: Do you find this era of automotive and new mobility stressful or energizing?
A: One of my biggest satisfying moments in the last year or so was an Elon Musk tweet. They were trying to launch the Model 3. He tweeted about how difficult it was and how complicated it was and how hard it is to meet volume production and get the cars out there and just talked about how hard their team members were working and how many late nights they were spending — and he's absolutely correct. Yes, that's our world. That's what we do. An automobile is a massively complicated system, and the idea that you can just get your arms around it and predict everything without incredible hard work, lots of stress, lots of changes in direction. That's what we do. If we can't live in uncertainty, automotive is not a good place to be. You have to be able to work in that somewhat scary space of sometimes pure brute force is what it takes to get it done. It's just hard work. And what technologies, what systems, what things to do at the right time, and sometimes you bet right, and sometimes you bet wrong. And when you bet wrong, it's a big deal, and you have to recover fast.
That uncertainty and scariness and stress is kind of what we live for. This is our passion. Mobility is a twist on the passion, but it's still the passion of what we do.