Toyota to Help Tow Space Shuttle; Plans to Film Ad Along Way

Oct. 11, 2012 5:00am Erik Derr | WardsAuto

Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. garners global attention with the announcement one of its pickup trucks will help tow the retired Space Shuttle Endeavour to its new home at the California Science Center, then diverts at least some of the media buzz to its own coverage of the historic haul.

The auto maker plans to film the stock ’12 Tundra Oct. 12 as it pulls the 5-story-long, 170,000-lb. (77,100-kg) spacecraft a quarter-mile across the Manchester Boulevard Bridge, which spans the busy I-405 freeway just north of Los Angeles International Airport, where the shuttle’s been housed since late September.

Russ Koble, manager-advertising and planning for TMS, confirms his team plans to use footage from the event for upcoming commercials and video posts at a special Toyota microsite dedicated to the half-ton pickup’s phase of Endeavor’s 12-mile (19-km) transport over local surface streets.

The site already features video of a Tundra hooked up to a transport designed for the shuttle haul, loaded down with giant concrete blocks. Another video features one of the astronauts who flew on Endeavour remembering his time serving on the ship’s crew.

Site visitors are provided a variety of social-media links to spread word about the so-called “Tundra Endeavour” and are promised future videos of the actual tow.

Endeavor will be guided most of the 2-day ride by self-powered, computer-controlled vehicles. The Tundra was picked for its role because state highway regulations prohibit the automated vehicles on bridges.

Riding atop the transporter, the spaceship will weigh an estimated 300,000 lbs. (136,080 kg), exceeding the hauling capacity of the 5.7L V-8 Tundra CrewMax by about 30 times. After extensive planning and testing in collaboration with The Sarens Group, a heavy-lifting and engineered-transport company, Toyota engineers nevertheless are confident their truck will get the job done.

Toyota’s film plans were the target of criticism from some news outlets reporting on the shuttle move, including USA Today, which declared in a recent report, “Toyota quickly figured out how to milk a walk-on part into a starring role when it comes to the trek of the space shuttle Endeavour.”

Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez also questioned turning the event into a commercial, asking in a recent rant, “If you’re going to allow a government rocket to be used to sell trucks, why stop there? Why not plaster Endeavour with ads, as if it’s a NASCAR race car? Tang breakfast drink would probably like a piece of that action, given its history with the space program.”

In general, however, reports about Toyota’s handling of the tow have been positive.

That shot of publicity comes as Tundra, first introduced to the U.S. market in 2007, bounces back from a lull in deliveries in 2010, blamed in part by the production disruptions after Japan’s earthquake and tsunami.

Tundra sales jumped 28% over 2011 numbers in July, the best month the truck had seen in over a year and a half. The Tundra and Tacoma pickups combined for 177,844 deliveries through September, a 27.3% increase from like-2011.

Meanwhile, the fullsize-pickup market as a whole is seeing a boost in sales and a significant increase in interest in the high-end luxury segment.

“I think there’s a lot of consumer confidence out there, a lot of pent-up demand,” says Koble. “Optimism in the market is coming back.”

He says Toyota’s focus “is not just the Tundra,” but also finding new ways to “encourage kids to go into engineering and science.” That includes participating in the last leg of Endeavor’s journey to the nonprofit science center, to which the auto maker has donated upwards of $10 million since the 1990s.

The Tundra that tows the shuttle will become part of the center’s permanent exhibit that demonstrates the physics of leverage.

The Tundra’s participation in Endeavor’s ground delivery to the science center doesn’t signal a change in the way Toyota markets the truck, Koble says. “This isn’t any departure from our message. We’re not looking to redefine what the Tundra is.”

Tundra’s appearance with the space shuttle, he says, confirms its place in the domestic truck market. “We see the truck market coming back,” Koble adds.