The night before any road trip tends to be an intoxicating mix of nerves, euphoria, and last-minute preparations. So for Frank DiMaggio, an engineer in Toyota's vehicle development division, the evening of June 21, 2015, presented a particularly potent brand of anticipation: he was getting ready to embark on a six-month, 15,000-mile journey across the U.S., Canada, and Mexico, during which he and his fellow drivers would test the car manufacturer's fleet in some of the roughest driving conditions the continent has to offer. And it was just hours away.
The North-American leg of Toyota's Ever Better Expedition was poised to kick off, and DiMaggio, as he tells Sweet, couldn't wait—for while he is certainly a talented engineer, there is another reason he was tapped to help with the excursion: He loves road trips.
"Perfect, now my co-workers will hate me even more."
"I had actually already been almost everywhere we went on this trip at some point in my life," he says—so it makes sense that he would be one of the people tasked with arranging an event that would be equal parts road trip and endurance test.
"Perfect, now my co-workers will hate me even more," DiMaggio says, laughing. "I have the best job ever and now you're going to talk about it." The Ever Better Expedition is a project inspired by Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda's vision of creating "ever better vehicles," and one of its main purposes was to, as DiMaggio describes it, "take the cars to places where we can see their strengths and weaknesses."
The trip involved a good deal of customer care, as DiMaggio would discover. He found that automotive enthusiasts were constantly showing up along the way to talk shop. "The activity is not only to test our vehicles—to make sure they're safe and perform well in all environments—but also to get out there and interact with customers."
DiMaggio and his colleagues often found themselves surrounded by enthusiasts who wanted help with any and all auto-related queries—along with some questions of the less technical variety. Some offered up questions he could answer, but much of the time people were just stopping by for some roadside therapy.
"We got great compliments, of course," he says, "but in a lot of cases, it's, 'Hey, I've got this problem, what are you guys going to do about it?' But it's a problem that [we] can't solve."
"It was a real strain, but I don't know that I will ever do anything more rewarding."
Customers showed up to ask questions about how to deal with cold weather (not even with regard to their cars, just general cold-weather gloom), and lamented the fact that each winter they needed to buy new tires. When he visited Texas, he found people simply wanted bigger (Texas-sized?) trucks.
In addition to the Ever Better Expedition's North-American leg, DiMaggio also took part in the Australian leg of the expedition, which brought him deep into the outback. "Australia is not like the U.S., in terms of the amount of roads," he says, noting that the terrain offered a uniquely challenging set of circumstances—endless stretches of dirt road, and the good old conundrum of "being in the middle of the Australian outback and not knowing if there's going to be a gas station." The scariest moment he encountered during all of his travels? "When we got to Manhattan and had to drive to a hotel in Midtown," he says. But they managed to make it to check-in, unscathed.
"It was a real strain," DiMaggio says of the trip's grueling, continent-spanning itinerary, "but I don't know that I have ever done, or ever will do, anything more rewarding."