TOKYO — Akio Toyoda's penchant for stirring things up dates to his days as a lowly section chief in the 1990s, when he tried to get Toyota to sell used cars online.
Fixated on the future, the young Toyoda — grandson of Toyota's founder — says he felt like a Jedi going up against an Empire ruled by the traditionalists at his family's namesake company.
Today, at 61, Toyoda is still preoccupied with the shapes of things to come as he leads Toyota into an era when old-guard metal benders face a cataclysm of change, from autonomous driving and electrification to the new competition from Silicon Valley.
"The automobile industry is changing at a speed far greater than anyone anticipated," Toyoda said in an Oct. 29 interview. "If we are satisfied with the way it is now, I think Toyota's growth is going to stop. ... Now I'm the president, but I feel like a Jedi."
Toyoda is hardly alone in confronting a rapidly changing landscape. Strategies are as myriad as the companies making the cars, and the view from Toyota is no less cloudy.
The worst peril, he insists, is standing still.
"Thinking that 2030 or 2050 is far in the future and doing nothing is the biggest risk," he said.
With all the uncertainty, a top Toyoda priority is cultivating a corporate culture that keeps things fresh and feisty.
He is trying to reinvent one of the world's most bureaucratic mega companies as one of its biggest little startups. He's investing aggressively in all arenas triggering today's angst and buzz: artificial intelligence, online services, big data analytics, electrified drivetrains and self-driving systems.
Last year, Toyoda began breaking the empire into subcompanies, each empowered to act as a self-contained unit. Small cars are handled by a Compact Car Company, commercial vehicles by the CV Company, connectivity by the Connected Company, and so on.
The goal: faster, nimbler decision-making for faster, more turbulent times.