TOKYO — From his glass-walled office high above central Tokyo, James Kuffner keeps a running computer file of “crazy ideas” for whenever a moment of genius strikes.

Toyota’s newest board member and resident robotics wizard gets lots of bolts from the blue.

One of his latest: a high-rise rooftop landing pad for flying cars that can pop up and open like a parasol, saving a lot of space compared with traditional heliports with their big painted “H.”

“When the vehicle wanted to land, you could land on it. And when it’s not being used, it could actually fold up and store away, maybe even underground,” Kuffner said with an inventor’s twinkle in his eye. “That’s one idea I thought was good. Some people said that’s crazy. But it’s trying to think about the future of mobility and see what kinds of ideas we can bring to bear.”


Just in case, Kuffner made sure to apply for a patent.

Even more visionary is Kuffner’s big idea for transforming Toyota Motor Corp. from a traditional automaker into a software giant that churns out autos as fast and flexibly as today’s tech companies make smartphones. If he can engineer that, Toyota could jump to the forefront of a truly new era.

Kuffner has been tapped to make that revolution happen, and he says huge changes are in store for Toyota. In the coming decade, a new vehicle “operating system” will be deployed in Toyota cars and sold to other automakers. Software will become a growth business for the company. And perhaps most crucially, breakthroughs in digitalization could slash vehicle development time in half, bringing Toyota’s product rollout cadence more in line with that of Silicon Valley.

The key, Kuffner said, is embracing the truth that in today’s auto industry, software is king.

“The
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