Top Avalon engineer wasn't just a front man
NAPA, Calif. -- Japanese automakers have often trotted out American "chief engineers" for vehicles launched in the United States -- neglecting to mention that the American guy probably defers to a "shadow" engineer in Japan who is the real boss on the project.
But no shadow engineer oversaw Randy Stephens, the 49-year-old Yank who led development of the 2013 Toyota Avalon. Stephens had final engineering authority for the vehicle, managing a group of 120 engineers in the United States.
Stephens did work closely with counterparts in Japan during the Avalon's development. Because the car shares a platform, subframe and suspension geometry with the Camry and Lexus ES 350, he collaborated with the chief engineers for those vehicles. He had an office and dedicated staff in Japan for his frequent visits there. "It was convenient that Camry and ES were already in development," he says. "I couldn't imagine trying to do this on our own."
During the early phase of the Avalon's 33-month development, Stephens reported to Toyota Technical Center President Shigeki Terashi, who later was promoted to run Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A.
Stephens described Terashi as "a big proponent of regionalizing decisions."
In some cases the needs of the Avalon clashed with the development targets for the other cars on the same platform. For instance, the Avalon's rear overhang is longer than that of the Camry, which affected its rear-impact crash results. When the ES had a similar problem, the groups worked out a structural solution that made everyone happy.
But poor communication across the Pacific sometimes hindered progress. Stephens wanted rear backup cameras with curving guidance lines that moved when the steering wheel was turned.
His team had been informed that such a feature was not available for the Avalon, or so he thought. After an older unit was installed, Stephens found out the better part could have been used. His team is working on installing the more modern backup camera on the 2014 model.
In Japan, the job of chief engineer is a famous one, like being captain of a ship. But Stephens says he doesn't fit into "the typical chief engineer mold."
"I don't walk into the meeting, put my fist down, and then everyone leaves knowing what they're supposed to do," he says. "I do a lot of listening."
Title: Chief engineer, 2013 Toyota Avalon
Education: B.S.in engineering, Michigan State University
Last book read: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance “for the tenth time”
Last music download: Trey Songz, Chapter V
Dream car: 1996 Porsche 911
You can reach Mark Rechtin at firstname.lastname@example.org. -- Follow Mark on