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August 31, 2020

Toyota's Five Continents Drive Comes to an End, But Its Spirit Lives On

The Toyota Five Continents Drive had come to an abrupt end. It was bittersweet for the car manufacturer who would have used the 2020 Tokyo Olympics to wrap up an unprecedented seven-year, five-continent endurance drive.

Instead, the COVID-19 pandemic emerged, forcing the cancellation not only of the Summer Games but also of Toyota’s ambitious program in its highly anticipated home stretch.

Yet, even as Toyota’s drive came to a rather inglorious close, Toyota is busy keeping its spirit alive. Now comes the next part: compiling lessons learned and applying them into building vehicles that better fit the world’s diverse markets and customers.

The 111,500-kilometer Five Continents Drive was the brainchild of President Akio Toyoda in an effort to instill his thinking, “ever-better cars” mentality across the company. According to Toyoda, roads teach the people, and the people make the cars.

The program took hundreds of Japanese employees of Toyota and local affiliates and shipped them around the world to drive each continent's roads over several years. The adventure kicked off in 2014 with Australia, then moved through North America, Latin America, Europe and Africa. Last year, Toyota drove Asia, from the Middle East to India and Southeast Asia, including a stop in the Philippines.

In 2020, Toyota targeted China, South Korea, Mongolia, and Taiwan before returning to Japan to converge on Tokyo in August for the Olympics and Paralympics. But when COVID-19 struck, that last leg was canceled before it even began.

Despite the early end, the drive racked up some impressive results. Since 2014, more than 700 people participated in the program, driving more than 270 vehicles from the Land Cruiser and Tundra to the Camry and Corolla.

Team members drove through 55 countries, from the Arctic and sweltering deserts to wind-battered mountain tops, crocodile-infested jungles, and gridlocked cities.

The drive already inspired numerous improvements such as the adoption of a new strake for the Corolla for easier cleaning; addition of sponges to front corners inside some vehicles to reduce wind noise; and the application of heaters to millimeter-wave radars to keep them from freezing.

But Toyota executives say the real benefits are the intangible ones. Engineers, salespeople, product planners from Japan got in tune with the tastes, demands, and conditions of co-workers, customers, and dealers in the far-flung reaches of Toyota's empire. The drive improved communication, fostered camaraderie, and made one of the world's biggest automakers just a little bit smaller. Most importantly, it got people out and driving.

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