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Product, Service & Design Innovation
‘Enrich Life-in-Motion for Those We Serve’:
How Mazda’s Values Fuel Its Innovations

Sustainable Brands Tokyo's Shigeki Aoki talks with Mazda President and CEO Masahiro Moro about how the 104-year-old auto manufacturer’s mission and strategies center around 'the joy of driving.'

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At SB’24 Tokyo-Marunouchi in February, Masahiro Moro — Representative Director, President and CEO of Hiroshima-based Mazda Motor Corporation — spoke passionately about the joy of driving, saying: "Mazda wants to continue offering the joy of driving, even in the era of electrification."

In its 104-year history, Mazda has stood out with innovations such as the rotary engine. Now, as the automotive industry works to transform toward carbon neutrality, how does Mazda continue to embody its values and how will it strive to realize them?

In this interview with Moro, Sustainable Brands Tokyo Academic Producer Shigeki Aoki learns more about the 104-year-old global automotive manufacturer’s mission and strategies.

Aoki: In the plenary session, you spoke about how Mazda was deeply engaged in the post-war reconstruction of Hiroshima and how the way of life of the company's predecessors was to work diligently every day, nurtured by Mazda's 'challenger spirit' DNA. Can you tell us more about this?

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Moro: During the war, Toyo Kogyo, the predecessor of Mazda, was located about 5 kilometers from the epicenter of the atomic bombing. Thanks to small mountains like Hiji and Ogon shielding the area from the blast, that HQ fortunately avoided major damage. Just four months after the bombing, the company started producing three-wheeled trucks — contributing to post-war reconstruction efforts.

Another significant aspect is our geographical distance from Tokyo. In national policies aiming to send competitive automobiles out to the world, discussions about consolidation naturally arise. However, the company had firmly rooted itself in the region and continued to thrive; it requires unique technology for this. The epitome of this is symbolized by the rotary engine — which we successfully developed after 6.5 years, despite other automotive manufacturers worldwide giving up on its practicality. We achieved full-scale production of the rotary engine in 1967.

The spirit of the engineers who succeeded in developing the rotary engine has been passed down across generations, leading to the development of the SKYACTIV engine series — aiming to achieve the world's best fuel efficiency for an internal-combustion engine.

Aoki: I heard that it was a difficult decision to temporarily discontinue production of the rotary engine to shift toward developing the SKYACTIV engine series.

Moro: Yes, this happened in 2012. However, even during that time, a small group of engineers continued diligently with the technical development of the rotary engine. They worked away quietly, deeply underground — tirelessly continuing their research & development. That's the kind of dedication they have — they were persistent. I think that aspect is one of the company's strengths and makes us quite unique.

The Mazda Iconic SP, a concept compact sports car unveiled at last year's Japan Mobility Show | Image credit: Mazda Motor Corporation

Aoki: I watched last year's Japan Mobility Show via web video, and I saw a sudden increase in viewership when the Iconic SP appeared. How did you perceive the audience's reaction?

Moro: I was extremely delighted and encouraged, thanks to an overwhelming response from around the world. The Iconic SP was proposed as one of the car designs and packages that we want to create in the carbon-neutral era. However, whether it would be accepted as a solution was something we wouldn't know until we exhibited it. To accelerate toward a new form of scalable electric vehicle models, gaining customer support is essential — and the enthusiastic cheers at the show strengthened my resolve. It led to the reformation of the rotary engine development group in February of this year.

Aoki: That was the balance between the mechanism of the rotary engine, which embodies your company's technical prowess, and appreciation for the beauty of sports cars, right? I belong to the Roadster generation, and I believe the essence of Mazda is evident in fan clubs like the Roadster Club of Japan and [Mazda sub-brand] Mazda Spirit Racing.

Moro: The [MX-5 Miata] Roadster, which has been on the market for around 34 years and has sold approx. 1.2 million units, holds a Guinness World Record as the most-produced lightweight sports car in the world. I think its success is largely due to being nurtured by our customers. It's not a high-performance car focused solely on engine power; rather, it's a sports car that provides enjoyment as a total package. Our customers have found various ways to use and enjoy it, expanding the joy of driving, and people from a lot of different countries seem to agree with this.

Aoki: Since the Roadster, the market for lightweight sports cars expanded rapidly. In your opinion, what is the primary reason why the Roadster has continued its popularity?

Moro: Mazda creates dedicated platforms for sports cars, and each engineer is committed to their work with a strong sense of dedication. For example, they agonize over decisions like whether to shave off 1 millimeter from a crossmember, knowing it will amount to a few grams of weight. While adding safety features, being able to create a car weighing around 1 ton is a culmination of the entire engineering team's dedication. I believe that customers also support this kind of commitment. Even with the RX-7, we pursued thorough weight-reduction strategies with initiatives such as "Operation Zero" — which is part of the company's heritage. We may be seen as a troublesome company because we don't easily accept the same methods as other companies.

That's why, even with the RX-7 — it only produces 250 horsepower; while other companies are maxing out at the 280 limit according to the regulations. So, when it comes to which is faster when driven, engineers strive to master the technology. Therefore, we have focused on analyzing and working on how the movement of a car affects human feelings and actions, specializing in the vehicle's performance — this is the sensing technology of today's era. The cooperative control computer adopted by our SKYACTIV engine has a fast calculation speed, allowing for actions like revving the engine while applying brakes. The central focus of our development is how the car needs to move to provide a pleasant driving experience. This approach is then extended to other vehicles.

At the SB’24 Tokyo-Marunouchi exhibition booth, Masahiro Moro discusses the Mazda rotary engine with Shigeki AOKI | Image credit: PATRONEFILM

Aoki: With European, American and Chinese manufacturers taking the lead in electric vehicles — and with Toyota advancing a 'multi-pathway' strategy — what is Mazda’s timeline for shifting to electric vehicles?

Moro: As an automotive manufacturer, we see it as our societal mission to respond to the demands of the times by complying with regulations for reducing emissions. When the first CO2 regulations were introduced in Europe, we realized that a long-term technological vision was necessary. We approached the issue from the perspective of what would be most effective in reducing emissions throughout the lifecycle of a vehicle. Our initial focus was on increasing the efficiency of internal combustion engines, starting from around 2005.

Later, we embarked on the challenge of creating an engine with the highest thermal efficiency globally — which we named the SKYACTIV engine.

In other words, we have been building up technologies within the scope of our product line — combining internal-combustion engines with electrification technology and shaping them into a range of solutions. This is part of our "Building Block Concept." As we are not a company with vast resources, we have been developing future-ready foundational technologies step by step over the long term — with the idea of accumulating themes of technological development that can be used in the future.

While also creating roadmaps for technologies using carbon-neutral fuels such as hydrogen and biofuels, we have been approaching this in a slightly different way than the "multi-pathway" strategy — by systematically tackling each aspect one by one.

Aoki: I see. Until now, you have developed cars under the assumption that they will run on gasoline. However, while considering the feasibility of infrastructure development and raw materials procurement, you have been drawing up a diverse business portfolio. Finding the balance must have been challenging.

Moro: Yes, of course. When considering genuine CO2 reduction, the composition of power sources and the extent to which customers participate the most significant factors. We aim to provide technologies that align with our customers' lifestyles and the progress of regional infrastructure. By encouraging as many people as possible to try and use our technologies, we hope to increase the number of cars in the market.

Our preference for internal-combustion engines and carbon-neutral liquid fuels is primarily due to their high energy density. In contrast, electric power has a significantly lower density — requiring large batteries for use in vehicles. However, battery technology is undergoing constant innovation; and various companies are developing technologies such as solar panels on car roofs or systems to "charge from the road." As these technologies are implemented in society, there is potential for solutions to evolve accordingly. Therefore, it's not a matter of switching from electric cars today to hydrogen cars tomorrow. We are currently in the dawn of these technologies, and they will require long-term evolution and constant advancements. At Mazda, we are committed to three factors: developing technologies that bring happiness to people; contributing to society; and promoting widespread adoption.

Aoki: In this context, your partnership with Toyota in 2017 was aimed at collaborating on the development of autonomous driving and the widespread adoption of electric vehicles. Is this collaboration aimed at anticipating the spread of these technologies?

Moro: Our work with Toyota is primarily focused on jointly developing essential vehicle systems necessary for the electrification era. The idea is that, as an industry, it's better to work together to contribute to society as much as possible.

A clear example of co-creation among domestic automakers is seen in the Super Endurance Race — where Toyota, Subaru and Mazda use the same carbon-neutral fuel and exchange race-result data. Although races are typically conducted with some secrecy, each engine type produces different results — even with the same fuel. By investigating this with all three companies, we can uncover things that might be missed otherwise. I believe that this will lead to the faster and more-confident implementation of carbon-neutral fuels in society.

Aoki: Mazda has garnered accolades such as "World Car of the Year" and "World Car Design of the Year." How has Mazda gained a unique identity and strengthened its core aspects through the challenges of global competition, starting as a domestic company in Japan?

Moro: We have learned a lot. In the past, there was a desire to become the third brand in Japan — and we were starting to create too many different types of cars and losing our individuality. But when Ford came in (as a capital alliance that was formed in 1979; subsequently dissolved), we decided to try it again. We realized that we specialize in sporty cars that are comfortable to drive. In the 2000s, this trend led to the creation of the Mazda brand's "Zoom-Zoom" [slogan] — which expresses the "excitement of the movement that we felt as children.''

Although this word is an emotional expression, the core essence is still the “joy of driving.” Brands are just like people, and what they are born with does not change much. However, if you go out into the world, you become refined in various aspects and your brand will grow. The technology, quality and appearance of cars will change.

Aoki: Mazda’s "2030 Vision" set out a strong message for 2030; and in your plenary speech, you talked about the company purpose to "enrich life-in-motion for those we serve." Can you tell us more about that?

Moro: As the automobile industry undergoes a major transformation into a mobility industry, we need to make sure that our employees and other stakeholders understand what Mazda is doing over time. By 2030, we aim to be a car-loving company that creates moving experiences through the "joy of driving" — but the word “automobile” does not appear anywhere in this purpose.

Although it took about a year to decide on this purpose, holding many workshops was very exciting. The people of the Showa generation (i.e., Japan’s Showa era [1926–1989]) like us wouldn't know what a company would do if it didn't mention the word "automobile," but the younger generation in their 30s clearly have a different mindset. However, to engage people in their 50s and 60s, we included the word "car" in our vision.

The phrase "enrich life-in-motion for those we serve" refers to postwar Hiroshima, where people worked hard to rebuild each day — making each day a good day, exchanging smiles and expanding the circle of people in the community. It also overlaps with the 100-year life of Hiroshima's predecessors, who have expanded and progressed to become the peaceful city that it is today. I think it's a great fit for the company.