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— Toyota Motor Corp. Thursday broke ground on a $126 million expansion of its technical center, a move first announced late last year as the Japanese automaker consolidates facilities as it moves its headquarters to Plano, Texas.

The technical center project includes construction of two new buildings in York Township: a new prototype facility for vehicle development and a supplier center. The expansion enlarges Toyota's powertrain development facility on its Ann Arbor Township campus.

"It's the epicenter for the auto industry," Toyota North America CEO Jim Lentz said in an interview. "You have great universities, great engineers graduating here. The vast majority of our supplier are here, so this is the place to be."

As part of the expansion, Toyota is relocating more than 300 workers to Michigan. The moves include about 250 purchasing and engineering positions currently based in Kentucky and about 85 vehicle development and powertrain workers that are presently in California.

Lentz said that Michigan was vital to the automaker's operations, but said Toyota doesn't yet have plans to build a manufacturing plant here.

Before the groundbreaking ceremony, Lentz sat down for a roundtable discussion with reporters touching on a number of topics, including:

Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Toyota announced last week it will partner with Ford to use its open-sourced technology to integrate smartphone apps into the car, seemingly bypassing Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Lentz said the move is all about protecting privacy. "We respect the desires of our buyers and the privacy they demand...not everyone in the industry may share that same belief," Lentz said. "Our belief is that it's the customers' data. I'm not taking a shot at any of our competitors or Apple or Microsoft, but in general, there are different beliefs about who owns that data."

The Takata airbag recalls. Toyota was the leader in gathering automakers together for third-party testing to determine the cause of the airbag defects, which have caused at least 6 deaths. "I was concerned about the speed at which we were getting answers," he said. "I wanted to make sure we were getting answers … and the industry was getting answers as quickly as possible. It really didn't make sense for each of us to do it independently."

The next-generation Prius. While Toyota has not yet made any official announcements, Lentz confirmed the automaker is working on a new version of the electric vehicle. "We haven't announced any launch timing, but I can tell you I've driven it and it's fantastic," Lentz said. "The car is better-looking, has a lower center of gravity, the fuel efficiency is going to be better." Some reports have indicated the next-generation Prius, expected out in 2016, will achieve about 15 percent better fuel economy. Lentz said that's not accurate and "probably a little too ambitious."

MMartinez@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2401

Twitter.com/MikeMartinez_DN

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