Home » ‘We Have More To Play With’: Lexus Electrified’s Assistant Chief Engineer Talks Steering Yokes, Fun EVs, His Love Of Stick-Shifts And More

‘We Have More To Play With’: Lexus Electrified’s Assistant Chief Engineer Talks Steering Yokes, Fun EVs, His Love Of Stick-Shifts And More

Lexus Engineer Ishigaki

Toyota has taken plenty of heat in recent years for not moving as quickly as rivals on electric vehicles or fighting to stall EV adoption in favor of hydrogen power. But people forget that its luxury division was always on the same trajectory as its competitors, with Lexus announcing back in 2021 that it would be an EV-only brand in North America by the close of this decade.

And Toyota and Lexus are hardly slouches when it comes to batteries. The company still leads the world in hybrid cars; Lexus alone was an early pioneer in that space with the first gas-electric luxury SUV, the RX 400h, back in 2005. Moreover, Toyota’s incoming new CEO Koji Sato—who has made no secret of his ambitious EV plans—comes from leading Lexus. Things may soon be changing at the world’s biggest automaker, starting with Lexus. 

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Photo: Lexus

Sato’s plans also include a dedicated, ground-up EV platform just for Lexus set to debut in 2026, and what’s more, the brand still seems interested in doing at least one sports car with it. Things are about to get interesting on the electric front for Lexus, and soon. 

One man who’s been tasked with making sure Lexus is on the bleeding EV edge is Tatsuya Ishigaki, the assistant chief engineer of the Lexus Electrified initiative. 

Ishigaki is an interesting guy to talk to, not just because of what he works on now but also because working at Lexus is a bit of a family affair for him. Born in Japan, he was in junior high school when he moved with his family to Kentucky because his parents worked for Toyota. There, they helped open the Toyota Motor Manufacturing Kentucky plant, which today employs thousands of people and produces the Camry Hybrid, RAV4 Hybrid, Lexus ES and several engines. 


Years later, after graduating from Purdue University with a mechanical engineering degree, he too joined Toyota and led the production launch of the first U.S.-made Lexus cars in Kentucky as well.

Moreover, Ishigaki’s engineering career has followed a trajectory not unlike the modern auto industry itself. He started out in diesel engine development and now serves as a top engineer for electrification efforts at Lexus.

I sat down with Ishigaki at the RZ launch for two wide-ranging conversations—one before I drove the car, and one afterward—about EVs that deliver memorable experiences, the controversial steering yoke, what he daily-drives (it will surprise you, I think) and much more.

2023 Lexus Rz Exterior 18

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity and flow.


You’ve had an interesting career. You started with diesel engines and now you’re working on electric cars. What has that been like from your vantage point, to see things move to go from fossil fuels to this electric future? 

I started off when I was young, and I was mainly into engines. I did go to Purdue, majored in ME, and when I was doing that I was doing internal combustion engines, mainly. After moving to Toyota and doing the diesel and those kinds of things, it was a little bit surprising to switch over to electric vehicles.

But my mindset is, [the project I’m working on] just happens to be a vehicle. Maybe it just happens to be a gasoline engine. It’s a vehicle. And how you tackle all the problems doesn’t change whether it’s diesel or electric; the problem changes as times change and you just tackle whatever you can do.

I wanted to ask you about ICE bans, like Europe may be doing soon by 2035. How much do decisions like that impact what you develop at Lexus and Toyota? How much do those things influence what you’re working on? 


It does, I think, matter a significant amount. We’ve been trying to provide carbon-neutral vehicle emissions since our first hybrid, though that does have an ICE engine paired together for the most practical use.

President Toyoda said we want to think about not just one region; we need to think about [products] around the globe and make sure the vehicles are practical to everyone’s needs and lifestyles. And availability is the big thing. We don’t want to limit the freedom of mobility for anyone. And we don’t want all of our customers to have to buy an expensive battery. 

Lexus Bev Sport Concept 2021 1600 0c
A preview of Lexus’ possible EV lineup. Photo: Lexus

You have this new e-TNGA platform that’s being used in a lot of different vehicles. So what can Lexus do to create the Lexus experience in an EV, when there’s so much more commonality with these vehicles than there used to be? This is not like the early 1990s when Toyota had so many bespoke platforms and engines. 

Of course there are some similarities, like the battery and the motor. But I think we have more to play with. It is a motor, so you can tune it whichever way you want. That’s exactly how we use the motor to make the distinct Lexus driving signature. So I mean, those are some of the things that I think we have an advantage with electric electrified technology. 

And of course, body-wise, it’s completely different. There are some additional reinforcements here and there to build the foundation a little bit stronger and to make sure it’s fit for the Lexus driving signature.

Lexus Electrified Sedan Concept. Photo: Lexus

One of the things that you guys were supposed to be working on was a simulated manual transmission for EVs. How important is it going to be to recreate that internal combustion experience for drivers? Do you think that even needs to happen? 

It’s really hard to say. For me, personally, as an engineer—and I’m not talking about anyone else here—I do own an ICE vehicle with a manual transmission. I love the experience. It’s not fast, but I drive it for the experience. 

What do you drive? 

[Laughs] I drive a small Yaris. It’s a stick shift. I do love playing with the gears. I don’t know. I mean, maybe there are people who might find that interesting, but I think that’s one of the opportunities where we can provide another new experience to the BEV stuff. That’s my take as an engineer. 

I think that we need to have that fun-to-drive feel, right? We just need to keep that in mind. We don’t want to just go for efficiency only. We’re here for experience. You don’t want to have the vehicle to be boring. 


The following took place after I drove the Lexus RZ, including two examples with the yoke steering system.

2023 Lexus Rz Lifestyle 7 Scaled
Photo: Lexus


OK, I drove that thing and was impressed with a lot of things about it. It’s a very direct system, and the sense of control is excellent. I thought the steering feel was good. My question is, why do this at all? 

So I think one of the things is, I think you already answered your question. It feels more direct, right? It feels more intuitive. 

You know, up until now we’ve had an all-mechanical steering wheel, you had to move a certain amount of the steering wheel itself to get your vehicle moving. You…the driver was a bottleneck. But now with the steer-by-wire system, you can take those [mechanical] items out and be more direct and pretty much faithful to the driver’s intention at low speeds and high speeds. That was the main idea behind this.


From an engineering perspective, what are the benefits on your end? Cost and complexity reduction? Efficiency?

I think there are, in the future, a lot of possibilities that I am thinking about when we go to Level 5 or full self-driving. Do you want to have a steering wheel there? If we only had a mechanical wheel, we won’t be able to have a more spacious cabin. 

Maybe, packaging-wise, you could possibly have the steering—since it’s electronically connected—this is somewhat of a joke, but you can really have a true backseat driver. [Laughs]

Or something like that possibility. And of course, you have better visibility, you have better ingress and egress. 

2023 Lexus Rz450e 014 Scaled
Photo: Lexus

Why go with that shape for the control system over a traditional wheel? 


It just happened. It ended up being that shape, is what I would say. One of the aims is, you want to make sure it is more direct and faithful to the driver. At the same time, you want it to be safe. With the steer-by-wire system, you can change the [steering gear ratio based on vehicle speed] at any time, so… why do you need the portion of the steering wheel you need to grab? Then it ended up being the yoke. 

This makes more sense now.

It didn’t start as a yoke. We didn’t want to make it a yoke, it ended up that way. I’m not an expert, but maybe an air pilot has the same thinking, right? 

I can see where there are a lot of advantages to that shape for automated driving and semi-autonomous driving. And with interior packaging too. 

Let me add, one benefit is that you can [control] input or unwanted vibration, yay or nay, upon your needs. Of course, you need some sort of feedback to understand that road condition. At the same time, you’re if you’re hitting a pothole or you’re hitting a bump… sometimes that will pull the steering wheel. And if the driver overreacts, you could veer off the lane or you can go off a cliff, maybe. But you can mitigate that just by filtering those things out. 


So this has a lot of benefits for automated driving, and if you’re trying to reduce space in the cabin—you don’t need a big wheel taking up all this space if the product isn’t driven by people, right? 

And how you package your vehicle. Up until now, with the mechanical steering wheel, the mechanical linkage, was the restriction. Now you have more freedom. Maybe possibly, one day, you could even do away with the yoke and just maybe have like, a joystick. 

Another benefit is that you can maybe personalize this in the future. Let’s say you have a limitation of movement, or you’re sharing the vehicle with a super-built, buffed-up guy, versus someone who is weaker. You can change the steering force, the reactive force of the steering, to fit your needs. 

If you’re trying to sell that feature to a customer right now, given the limits we have with automated driving, what do you think is the appeal of the yoke? Why should someone check that box on the options list?

I think the easy way to say it is, it’s nice and it’s cool and new. And advanced tech, so that should be appealing. But that’s where our salespeople come in [laughs.] I think I do want to make sure the story’s told about the thought process about why we came up with the steer-by-wire system.


It’s all about a direct and fun-to-drive experience for anybody, that at the same time can be safe. That’s what we’re trying to strive for. We wanted to do this to make sure the driver has a good driving experience. 

2023 Lexus Rz450e 012 Scaled
Photo: Lexus

What do you think it would take for that technology to spread across more Lexus cars, or more Toyota cars? Infiniti tried this but it never really went anywhere. Where does this go from here?

I don’t know. I can’t really tell what’s up ahead. Maybe the customer will like it. I hope they like it once it’s out. It’s always about supply and demand, right? If there’s a demand, of course, we’ll try to supply it. But it’s really hard to tell right now.

2023 Lexus Rz Lifestyle 2 Scaled
Photo: Lexus


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1 year ago

We have apparently forgotten what steering feel is. It’s not steering feel if it’s not physically transmitting information from the ground. It’s artificial nonsense like fake engine noise, but with serious potential consequences in case of more likely failure or even going out of calibration. Reading programmed DBW feedback as steering feel reminded me of the movie “Demolition Man” where people only have sex in some kind of VR and think it’s great.

The yoke design is stupid as far as ergonomics (and aesthetics, but I guess that’s subjective) and self driving BS is anathema to fun except maybe for giving more time for some pervert to pleasure themselves while being robot chauffeured.

Beached Wail
Beached Wail
1 year ago

A few years ago I saw an exhibit of items from King Tut’s tomb. (Wait, I have a point!) Among them was a spoon – from 3300 years ago – that looked remarkably like a spoon you’d pull out of a drawer today. Nobody’s claiming spoons are “boring, old-school, low-tech” and redesigning them in some insipid way because they aren’t modern and future-proof. A steering wheel works because it’s a great way for humans to apply consistent force over a range of motion, it supports ergonomics by allowing one to reposition one’s hands to reduce hand/arm fatigue, and it provides a distributed impact area in the event of an accident.

A wheel can be designed to move out of the way if we’re not going to use it. We’ve had that technology since the Swing-Away wheel in the ’61 Thunderbird and the Tilt-Away wheel in the ’67 T-Bird. It’s not rocket surgery to move a wheel away from a driver.

I’m waiting to hear a designer say, “Look, Tesla has some dumb ideas, like making drivers take their eyes off the road for basic vehicle functionality and changing the steering wheel into a poorly executed compromise that their own customers dislike. But our management says Tesla’s perceived – by increasingly unskilled and inattentive drivers – as an interface leader, so we have to copy them and find ridiculous “The Future” justifications so we don’t get pigeonholed as a company that only builds cars for actual drivers. Plus, we save seven bucks a car if we only use half a steering wheel!”

Mr Sarcastic
Mr Sarcastic
1 year ago
Reply to  Beached Wail

Dear Mr Beached Wall can i interest you in a spork? LOL

I AGREE 100%. More crap, more problems.

1 year ago

I do think it would be nice not to have to crank the wheel to get into a parking space.

1 year ago

I saw the Canoo Van had 1/2 turn steering, variable assist. I am not sure I want to really loose road feel and rely solely on an electrical connection to steer my car, but I am sure the younger generation that grew up on Gran Turismo will likely do fine with it.

Mr Sarcastic
Mr Sarcastic
1 year ago

I like my eggs with yokes but my cars yoke free

Duke of Kent
Duke of Kent
1 year ago
Reply to  Mr Sarcastic

With yokes like that, you may have a career in stand-up comedy!

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