25 Years in the Desert

Toyota Arizona Proving Grounds manager reflects on his unlikely path to Toyota’s most secretive facility

April 24, 2018
Perfect Pose -- TAPG manager Richard Woodroffe came all the way from Nova Scotia to run one of Toyota's most important and secretive facilities.

Halifax, Nova Scotia, is a long way from Arizona.
 
Really long.
 
More than 3,200 miles away, actually.
 
So, you can forgive Richard Woodroffe for never dreaming he would end up managing Toyota’s Arizona Proving Grounds. If you aren’t too familiar with TAPG, that’s by design. More on that a little later.
 
But Woodroffe’s path to Arizona didn’t necessarily go in a straight line.
 
“It’s a bit of a funny story, actually,” Woodroffe says. “I was always fascinated with cars and racing, and I wanted to be a race car driver. But to do that professionally is a long shot. I decided to focus on a career designing and developing cars.”
 
Unfortunately, there’s not much of that kind of work in Canada.
 
 “It just doesn’t exist,” Woodroffe says. “I just figured there was no way I’d be able to do design/development work at an automobile company since I lived in Canada.”
 
But he thought it was worth a try anyway. So, Woodroffe earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering at Dalhousie University, moved to Toronto, and applied at every automotive company he could find. The job market was tough, so he returned to Halifax to work in a foundry. But he eventually managed to land a job at Ford’s service engineering department in Canada. From there, he made the leap to GM, and then to Toyota, where he’s spent the past 25 years at TAPG.
 
“It’s really cool to me, and a path I never could have predicted,” Woodroffe says. “When I reflect on it, I’m pretty stoked.”
 
So, what does he do, exactly?
 
Well, he can’t really talk much about it.
 
In Charge -- TAPG sits about 40 miles outside of Phoenix, where Woodroffe recently found himself in front of the camera with this Toyota 86. 

Prove It
 
TAPG is located in a remote patch of desert about 40 miles outside of Phoenix. It’s where the rubber hits the road -- literally – for Toyota models in development. The 12,000-acre facility features several miles of tracks, where vehicles are tested for vehicle dynamics performance, safety, quality, and reliability. Nearly every product Toyota sells goes through rigorous testing at TAPG. And yet, only a select handful of Toyota team members will ever get a chance to test them. 
 
Former Toyota Motor Corporation (TMC) chairman Dr. Shoichiro Toyoda opened TAPG in 1993, calling it “another milestone for us in putting our American operations on a truly American footing.” A lot has changed since then. And of course, the technology tested there has evolved, too. While anti-lock braking systems and Enhanced Vehicle Stability Control were once on the forefront of industry advancements, now TAPG is the testing ground for breakthroughs like Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS), fuel cell hybrid vehicles and autonomous driving technology.
 
First in Line
 
So, for a boy who dreamed of driving cars for a living, what’s it like driving Toyota’s newest models before anyone else?
 
“It’s really cool,” Woodroffe says. “There are so many different groups doing testing here, bringing cars, prototypes, and competitive vehicles. The fact we can’t talk about it on the outside makes it hard to get excited sometimes. But internally, we have a lot of fun with it.”
 
And they do. TAPG employs several skilled drivers, tasked with pushing Toyota vehicles to the limit as part of the required testing. In 2014, staffers developed an in-house motorsports team. They race about five or six times a year, in three to six-hour endurance races on road courses mostly in California and Utah. It gives coworkers a chance to unwind and do what, in many cases, inspired them to work in the automotive industry to begin with.
 
“We’ll spend an entire weekend together,” Woodroffe says. “And in that environment, it makes you realize just how special this job is.”
 
The program is also a development tool for team members interested in becoming skilled drivers. They start out as support crew – doing whatever maintenance work the cars need and learning the ropes of motorsports driving.
 
So why is some of the most interesting Toyota research and development happening in the of the Arizona desert? Chalk it up to the weather. Arizona is consistently warm, sunny and dry – averaging just about nine inches of rain each year. That means Woodroffe doesn’t have to worry about severe weather or storms delaying a critical testing timeline.
 
Just more proof that Woodroffe is a long way from Halifax.
 
By Kristen Orsborn

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