DETROIT (AP) - Automotive engineers will be under great pressure in the near future to come up with ways to make large cars more fuel efficient for the North American market, according to a top Toyota official.
David Baxter, senior executive administrator at the Toyota Technical Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan, said Monday that North American consumers prefer larger vehicles, and it is up to engineers to figure out how to satisfy their wants with new technologies.
''Especially in North America, people like the size of their vehicles, and there's going to be a lot of pressure to maintain the size for safety and improve fuel economy,'' Baxter said in an interview at the Society of Automotive Engineers annual convention in downtown Detroit.
He predicted that consumers likely will switch buying habits in the next decade to vehicles that get better gas mileage and have more safety features.
''But that doesn't necessarily mean they're all going to be hybrids or all small cars, either,'' he said.
Toyota Motor Corp. has been experiencing double-digit monthly sales increases at a time when sales are flat or dropping for most U.S.-based automakers. The increases are due largely to its Corolla and Camry models, which are perceived by many as more fuel efficient than models made by the Detroit Three.
Baxter said the engineers attending the convention this week from car manufacturers and parts suppliers face a serious challenge to get more mileage with larger cars such as Toyota's Avalon, which was designed at Baxter's technical center in Michigan.
Toyota recently introduced a hybrid gasoline-electric powered mid-sized Camry that gets an estimated 40 miles per gallon in city driving, but Baxter would not say whether a hybrid Avalon is in the offing.
''It's likely there will be more hybrid vehicles or more hybrid powertrains available in our models in the future,'' he said.
Toyota Motor Corp.'s Toyota division is in the process of expanding its presence in the Ann Arbor area. It already has a Technical center near the city and has begun building a $150 million second campus in nearby York Township, Mich.
Baxter said the company already employs about 780 people in the Ann Arbor area and is hiring another 400 engineers. The new center ultimately will focus on developing vehicles unique to North America, while existing operations will continue work on powertrains, parts and materials evaluation and other research, Baxter said.
The new facility will support Toyota's growth expected in North America over the next several years, he said.
At the engineers' convention, being hosted by Toyota, engineers will spend much of the week discussing fuel economy, automotive safety and other issues. About 35,000 people are attending the events, which Baxter said makes it the largest conference of its kind.
Baxter predicted that automakers, even those as large as Toyota and General Motors Corp., will collaborate more on safety, fuel economy, emissions and other issues.
''You can't afford to do it independently or autonomously any more like maybe you could 20 or 30 years ago,'' he said. ''There's too much technology out there not to benefit from what others have to offer.''