Unlimited potential, like the sky above us.
"At university, I majored in aeronautics. At one time I wanted to join an airplane company," says Mitsuo Hitomi. The concept name given to Mazda's next-generation powertrains is "SKY," like the sky that Hitomi dreamed of when he was young. This concept embraces several ideas: "My desire is to ensure an everlasting blue sky, and I also want to enable customers to experience the joy of driving under that sky."
Mazda has announced that, by 2015, it plans to improve the average fuel economy of Mazda vehicles sold globally by 30% compared to 2008 levels.
The key technology underlying those plans is its next-generation powertrains, developed under the "Mazda Sky Concept"*, which involves a complete overhaul of gasoline and diesel internal combustion engines (conventional engines that extract energy by burning gasoline or diesel) and their transmission systems. When asked Why Mazda is focusing its efforts on internal combustion engines, Hitomi replied, "To really help the environment, we need a technology that can be applied to all vehicles, not just a few specific ones. And because the internal combustion engine is going to continue to be the mainstay for vehicles for some time, going forward, we decided that it was what we needed to improve. Even in hybrids, if we improve the efficiency of the internal combustion engine, we can then apply smaller capacities in both the motor and the batteries, which is also important for the future."
Another key factor is the lightweight element of "Zoom-Zoom". "It's difficult to feel the joy of driving in a heavy vehicle. By striving to build the ideal internal combustion engine, we can successfully build vehicles with both the joy of driving and excellent environmental and safety performance".
- *Concept name for an engine and transmission to be introduced from 2011 onward.
The development goal that Hitomi and his colleagues have been working toward is the 'ultimate' engine. Hitomi says: "Engineers researching internal combustion engines have a vision for what the ideal engine should be." But when the research began, there were plenty of people, even within the company, who said it was impossible to achieve. Hitomi just smiles, saying, "If it were something anyone could do, there'd be no room for breakthroughs."
Hitomi likens the development path to a mountain climb. "You may be able to see the summit, but there are still a number of cliff faces to overcome before you can reach it. Some will be discouraged by that and turn back. But once you take a closer look at those cliff faces, you can see that there's always a route with a slightly less difficult slope. I don't want my team members to become engineers who just look for reasons why they can't do something." This is the message Hitomi conveys to his staff.
The next-generation powertrains being developed now by Mazda are clearly the first step toward an ideal engine.
The burden that Hitomi bears as the person responsible for developing the Mazda Sky Concept is outweighed by his happiness in that role. Since joining Mazda, he has been involved in cutting-edge research at Mazda's Technical Research Center, focused primarily on gasoline engine technology. In this case, cutting-edge research consists of fundamental research carried out far in advance of the development of vehicles for the market.
"There have been very few instances where my own ideas, after clearing numerous hurdles and after a long period of time, have actually been incorporated into vehicles sold on the market. That's why I'm so happy when technologies we've pursued in the research center make it out into the world as products. For an engineer, that's the most satisfying and worthwhile thing. Now, I can do the work I've most wanted to do," says Hitomi.
The first engine built under the Mazda Sky Concept will be rolled out globally starting in 2011. Development is now entering the final-adjustments phase that precedes mass production. "I feel like I'm watching over my own child. I'm putting the final touches on this product so that when it makes its debut next year, people will shower it with praise." says Hitomi.
Hitomi and his team are now close to the top of the development mountain they've been climbing. When they reach the summit, who knows what new horizons will open before them?
Kyushu Mazda Co., Ltd.'s Shingu dealership is located in the suburbs of Fukuoka City in Fukuoka Prefecture.
According to Eri Suemune, a salesperson at the dealership, "I think people are going to want vehicles with even better environmental performance, including things
like superior fuel economy, in the future. But if they can have vehicles with features like 'i-stop' that are fun 'Zoom-Zoom' vehicles and still perform well environmentally, they'll be really happy."
Mazda's unique idling-stop system, i-stop, was included in the new model Mazda Axela/Mazda3 released in 2009. When the vehicle is waiting at a traffic light, i-stop automatically stops the engine, helping to reduce fuel consumption.
Vehicles equipped with i-stop also have a function that converts the figure for fuel saved by turning off the engine into a figure for amount of CO2 emissions reduced, and then displays it on a monitor inside the vehicle in terms of tree growth. "Some customers tell us how their trees have grown each time they bring their vehicle in for servicing. I think it's better when they can actually see how much they're contributing to the environment," says Suemune.
Suemune, who joined Mazda five years ago, says,"Every time I talk about vehicles with a customer, I get more interested in replacing my own vehicle." Before joining Mazda, however, she wasn't particularly interested in vehicles.
While in university, Suemune commuted by bus and spent her time gazing at the scenery through the bus windows every day. One day, she saw some vehicles that caught her eye: "The design was really innovative." It was a Mazda. That eye-catching design was Suemune's first encounter with a Mazda vehicle.
Commenting on the recent emphasis on fuel economy, Suemune says, "it's certainly true that people are increasingly interested in fuel economy, but—and I felt the same way myself—what customers expect in Mazda vehicles are things like dynamic design, color schemes that let them express their individuality, brisk and responsive handling…Which all just really amounts to wanting a Zoom-Zoom vehicle that's fun to drive."
In autumn 2009, one of Suemune's customers came to her looking very happy. "This is exactly the kind of vehicle I've been waiting for," he said. He showed Suemune a Mazda brochure that had been handed out at the 2009 Tokyo Motor Show. The page he pointed to showed Mazda's concept car featuring a Mazda Sky Concept engine.
Customers who are keen on reducing their fuel consumption are now looking to Mazda. "Vehicles that offer the fuel economy of hybrid vehicles without sacrificing driving pleasure. That's what Mazda's really all about, isn't it? When they go on sale, I'll be very proud to recommend them to my customers." says Suemune.
Mazda strives to build vehicles for people who truly love vehicles. The Mazda Sky Concept is the embodiment of that ideal.