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African-American designer shines at Toyota

By Freddie Allen/NNPA News Wire Senior Correspondent
On February 1, 2016

McConnell talks to a group of journalists about the 2016 Toyota Avalon at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

Rob McConnell, the manager for body engineering at the Toyota Technical Center said that he often draws inspiration from the fashion industry.

“A little secret, hopefully no one is recording, but me and my wife sit and watch ‘Project Runway,’” McConnell said joking with a small group of Black journalists at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. “Yeah, I’ll admit it.”

McConnell said that, in a lot of ways, fashion designers are engineers.

“It’s all connected. You gotta’ pull from a lot of different places to get your inspiration, your ideas,” said McConnell. “You gotta’ come up with something new. That means you have to look outside the box.”

McConnell said that he gets excited about the fashion industry and how we can marry the fashion industry to the development and design of the vehicle and how we can execute it through engineering.

McConnell discovered that he was passionate about design at an early age as he played with Matchbox cars, Hot Wheels and Legos. He also competed in the Boy Scouts’ pinewood derby.

“That’s engineering and that’s design,” said McConnell. “That’s the biggest challenge that we have when we’re kids, realizing that this excitement may actually lead to bigger and better things.”

For McConnell, those bigger and better things included a 15-year (and counting) professional career at the Japanese automaker and a number of United States patents related to his work. According to a company biography, McConnell served as the “project design lead for multiple North America Production vehicles including the dramatically restyled 2013 Toyota Avalon.”

McConnell was also the team leader for the body and exterior for the 2014 Toyota Camry, Toyota Sienna, Toyota Venza, and Toyota Tundra. Now he manages exterior lighting development for vehicles like the Toyota Camry and Toyota Avalon.

McConnell noted that eyewear has risen as a fashion statement in recent years.

“A lot of people have turned what’s functional into a fashion element and that’s something that you can execute in a car. How do we do that? We do that in the headlights,” said McConnell. “The headlights are a statement, they are a signature, they are the eyes of the vehicle, and with the 2016 Toyota Avalon, we refined the daytime running lights.”

McConnell said that when you see the 2016 Toyota Avalon coming down the road or in your review mirror, you know exactly what it is and his goal was to create a memorable experience for Toyota customers.

“Your eyes can tell a story and the eyes of the vehicle can tell a story,” said McConnell. “They speak to the depths of the vehicle and the soul of the vehicle and that’s what I hope to accomplish with the future vehicles that I work on.”

McConnell suggested that young people who are interested in going into engineering or automotive design should sharpen their critical thinking skills, get involved in team projects, or even work on cars in an effort to expose themselves to the opportunities that are out there. He said that students in middle school and high school need to think about college and their careers as early as they can.

McConnell continued: “The key point is that you gotta’ open your mind and it’s really about understanding the opportunities that are out there. You may get into it and decide that you don’t want to go into engineering, but it might spawn your thought to go in a different direction, which is really the push.”

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