Business

At Toyota Connected, Zack Hicks is redefining the future of mobility

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Zack Hicks | All photography by Cydnee Jex

Beyond the facial recognition software that grants access to team members, the coffee bar and games lounge, black and white baby photos fill an entire wall of the Toyota Connected (TC) sleek Legacy West headquarters. These tiles—filled with chubby cheeks and bright smiles—capture the essence of what TC is really about.

“When we are growing up, we believe we can change the world,” Zack Hicks, CEO and founder of TC, says. “At some point, though, life beats that out of you, but we can change the world; we’re changing it right here.” Those sweet childish grins serve as reminders of the possibilities in childhood dreams.

In 1890, working in a barn in a small poverty-stricken village in Japan, Sakichi Toyoda invented the Toyoda Wooden Hand Loom. This simple piece of machinery increased efficiency by 50 percent. It was an innovation that revolutionized the loom industry. Forty-three successful years later, Sakichi Toyoda saw a new opportunity and decided to switch the company focus to car manufacturing: Toyota Industries Corporation was born.

Today, at Toyota Connected where colleagues whip around on scooters and work in open-plan pods in front of screens filled with coding, a sculpture depicting a crisscrossed red loom serves as a reminder of Toyota’s bold history and a gentle nod to the fact that all bets are off and another pivot is already underway.

What exactly that looks like is undefined which begs the question: What does TC do? Is it Toyota’s secret plot to prepare for the downfall of the automobile industry and dominate the upcoming transporter field? Or is it radical planning to avoid their own “Kodak moment”? Or, simply, a test ground for new technologies and business models?

Back in 2018, Akio Toyoda, president of Toyota Motor Corporation, said: “It’s my goal to transition Toyota from an automobile company to a mobility company, and the possibilities of what we can build, in my mind, are endless.”

Enter Zack Hicks.

We meet in his modestly-sized office—just large enough for a small conference table, his desk and a reading nook with a framed family photograph. On the wall behind him hangs a print of “Coney Island Tagging Robot” by internationally famous graffiti artist Banksy: a whimsical robot spraying a bar-code with the number 13274125, the DNA code for homo sapiens.    

On paper, Zack Hicks is: executive vice president and chief digital officer, Toyota Motor North America; chief executive officer and president, Toyota Connected North America; chairman, Toyota Connected Europe; and field general manager, Connected Company, Toyota Motor Corporation.

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Three years ago, Mr. Shigeki Tomoyama, a senior executive of Toyota in Japan, offered him the opportunity to create a company that would manage the data coming out of vehicles. Although unenthused at the thought of managing data, Zack saw a huge opportunity in using data in a way that would be beneficial to the customer. “I told him, ‘If you want to turn data into something exciting that transforms the experience, I’m your guy.’ And they said, ‘Do it.’”

With the backing of Toyota, he founded Toyota Connected North America to “free us from the tyranny of technology, making a connected life a more human experience” and built a start-up that could operate in concert with, but independently from, ‘the mothership’.

He chose Legacy West for its proximity to the Toyota Motor North America headquarters and set about designing a company that he would want to work at, a place that would be “more like a playground.”

“I wanted collaboration; I didn’t want people hiding in offices,” he says. “That explains the glass everywhere.” The windows that overlook Earls Kitchen + Bar and West Elm on Windrose Avenue are floor-to-ceiling, and all the meeting spaces have glass walls (as well as funky light fixtures and modern furniture). The work stations are out in the open, as are the break rooms, kitchens, the coffee bar and communal picnic-style tables where everyone eats lunch.

Zack believes in healthy eating and the importance of a healthy workforce so TC brings in a catered lunch every day, “Monday through Thursday, we bring in soup and salad from a good place like Sixty Vines or The Keeper: it’s amazing lunches. And Friday is our cheat day, so we bring in whatever. On the day of our visit, we’re treated to a choice of falafel, steak wraps and salads from Snappy Salads.

Even the presentation space, which resembles a small cinema with a stage and stadium seating with sofas and armchairs, has no walls. It’s just simply part of the workspace.

“We also have unlimited vacation time,” Zack says. Apparently, attracting and keeping talent requires perks beyond free coffee and local brews. “We have a tea club, Waffle Wednesdays, and bourbon and whiskey clubs—all self-organized.”

Founded in 2015 with just a handful of employees, TC now has some 200 employees and over 50 open positions with wide-ranging titles such as data privacy analyst, cloud infrastructure engineer, big data engineer, senior UX designer, scrum master and director of international expansion.

TC and Toyota are two separate entities, with two very different business models. Simply put: Toyota builds cars; TC builds software solutions to make driving (or riding in) a Toyota or Lexus the best experience it can possibly be.

Zack offers three simple examples: tacos, tardiness and traffic.

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Say you’ve nipped out to the grocery store and decided to go out to lunch. Assuming you’ve chosen to share your data, your car will take care of the reservation for you. It knows you love tacos, it knows a new Mexican restaurant opened nearby and, based on the number of seatbelts fastened, it can make a reservation for all passengers.

The next day, your car asks: “Do you want me to let your supervisor know that you’re going to be a few minutes late?” Accessing your driving history, the traffic and your calendar, your car knows you’re running behind and offers you a simple—and hands-free—solution.  

Over the weekend, you’re heading somewhere you don’t go often: AT&T Stadium. “If you go down an unknown road, we can predict where you’re going,” Zack explains. “And we can say, ‘Hey, it looks like you’re going to the Cowboys game. Should I route you to avoid traffic? Would you like me to prepay the parking?”

“We leverage data that a customer wants to share with us, and give them an amazing experience,” Zack says. In essence, Toyota Connected is harnessing data in order to build “cloud profiles” which, as Zack explains it, “really know what the customer wants and has predictive services.”

While Zack feels there’s “a hyper-focus on autonomous driving in the media,” he does concede that what TC is doing will eventually apply to autonomous vehicles too, but with uses far beyond self-driving cars. One application will be the ability to enroll your car in a car-sharing service whereby your car can work for you while you’re not using it—delivering packages for Amazon, or delivering people with Uber, for example.R

Most recently, TC was in the news for the car-sharing program they pioneered in Honolulu, Hui. “[Via an app,] you rent a car for an hour or day and your personal phone connects to the vehicle and becomes a digital key,” explains Zack. “You can use the car when you want, and leave it when you want.

“Basically, we are building up a client profile that will travel from vehicle to vehicle, kind of like the next iteration of the connected car,” he says.

Privacy and data security are valid concerns, but Zack points out that unlike Google and Facebook, at TC, data is not the product. They’re selling incredible customer experiences.

“With Facebook and Google, you connect for free because they’re selling data. But here, you buy a car for $25,000, and you know it’s your data, so it’s a direct relationship,” Zack explains.

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To clarify, Craig Keller, head of communications at TC, explains that when customers purchase their Toyota or Lexus they are given the option to opt-in or opt-out of data sharing. “When they do share their data, that data is encrypted in transit and at rest, and is behind multiple layers of security,” Craig says. “If they choose to opt out, it means their data is not collected. And, if they defer their opt-in/out decision at the time of purchase, customers can opt-out either through the Toyota OneApp, Toyota or Lexus websites, calling customer service directly or by hitting the SOS button in their car.”

“I just want to make customers fall in love with driving a Toyota or a Lexus,” Zack says.

Moving into the future, however, what Zack really wants is for customers to use Toyota as the easiest way to get from A to B, with the most useful and intuitive services. “We are delivering new mobility solutions to people, whether that’s across the living room or across the country,” he explains. “Customers define mobility, and we will give them an amazing experience.”

Philip Silvestri

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