02 Oct 2014: Interview

He's Still Bullish on Hybrids,
But Skeptical of Electric Cars

Former Toyota executive Bill Reinert has long been dubious about the potential of electric cars. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, he talks about the promise of other technologies and about why he still sees hybrids as the best alternative to gasoline-powered vehicles.

by kay mcdonald

As one of the principal designers of the gasoline-electric hybrid Prius, Bill Reinert has never been shy about sharing his views on what he considers the poor prospects for fully electric vehicles — and on just about anything related to alternative fuels and the future of transportation. For Reinert, who recently retired as national manager of Toyota Motor Corporation’s advanced technology group the physical and performance limitations of battery technology present a key stumbling block, but other issues — including a lack of charging infrastructure and steady efficiency
“Bill
G. Asakawa/Univ of Colorado
Bill Reinert
improvements in the internal combustion engine — also stand in the way.

Yet while he remains skeptical about electrics, Reinert sees opportunity in other low-emissions vehicle technologies currently in development, particularly fuel cells. In an interview with Yale Environment 360 contributing writer Kay McDonald, he shares his thoughts on these and other aspects of the global effort to find efficient and affordable alternatives to gas-powered cars.

“Nearly every manufacturer that makes a car now makes hybrids ... ,” Reinert says. “And we continue to improve on them.”

Yale Environment 360: You’ve long been a skeptic about electric cars. Are you still, and if so, why?

Bill Reinert: Essentially my position on electric cars hasn’t changed. There’s nothing promising beyond the lithium battery on the battery horizon. And the lithium battery has tremendous shortcomings for cars – for example, it doesn’t maintain a full charge in hot weather, which creates a battery degradation cycle. Even the Tesla's Model S, with its biggest battery, when driven like a normal car can't always deliver 200 miles of range, and the [company's charging stations] are currently 200 miles away from each other. To give a Tesla much extra driving range, the battery weight required would greatly decrease the distance it could travel per kilowatt and also greatly increase its cost.

In comparison, by adding just a little weight in the way of a few extra gallons of gas to a 50 mile-per-gallon hybrid car, there can be a big extension of the hybrid’s driving range. And while I don’t expect the battery car to get dramatically better, the internal combustion engine is getting phenomenally better, like the great little Ford Ecoboost three-cylinder engine.

Given that the bar gets raised all the time, it’s hard to see where the case for an electric car really comes in. Is it for carbon reduction? No, you’d have to decarbonize the whole grid to make that case, and that’s not likely to happen. I don’t know the case for the electric car. There’s going to
I think natural-gas cars will be a very small market for a long time.”
continue to be a market for them, but it’s going to be a very small market.

e360: Liquid petroleum gas (LPG) and compressed natural gas are increasingly being used for trucks and trains. Do you see cars ever transitioning to compressed natural gas (CNG) in a big way?

Reinert: I get asked this question a lot about implementing natural gas for cars. Given that natural gas is much cheaper than diesel, at least by half or more, that makes natural gas good for trucks, which spend a lot on fuel – plus it’s cleaner, too. For automobiles, though, a lot of work has to be done. It can be done, and I think that it will be done over time. The rear suspension of the car needs to be redesigned to accept tank storage, otherwise the tanks are stored up in the trunk. What you want is for the tank to sit low between the suspension so you get a flat trunk, and there are companies working on that.

But the cost to make a car that runs on CNG is a few thousand [dollars] higher, similar to the hybrid penalty, and the required fueling infrastructure isn't there, yet. As always, the question is who pays for these things? There are also safety concerns of fires or explosions when parking in underground parking lots, which trucks don’t have to worry about.

The engineering problems can be done but I think natural gas cars will be a very small market for a long time, maybe at most 3 or 4 percent.

e360: What about fuel cell cars? Do you think they can replace liquid fuels?

Reinert: From a scientific side I see a better engineering maturity for them than I do for batteries. Fuel cell cars and their necessary infrastructure are very expensive, although we can get those costs down. But the real problem with both of these technologies [fuel cell and electric] is that they can’t compete with the technology advances we’ve seen in the gasoline cars. I drove fuel cell cars for a long time, for about 30,000 miles, and I liked them. But there was nothing in them that is so compelling that
To say the electric car is better because it doesn’t use any gasoline is ridiculous.”
would make me want to spend the extra money. What’s the advantage of restraining your mobility at a higher cost? The auto companies need to make zero-emission vehicles for Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) and other regulations, such as the California Air Resources Board's zero emissions mandate, so they need to decide which pathway, EVs or FCVs, will lose the least amount of money. When most [manufacturers] investigate the two technologies, they see that FVCs offer more room for performance improvement and cost reduction potential. And that is why you will be seeing more fuel cells in the future.

e360: You were involved in designing Toyota’s hugely successful Prius. But that was a long time ago. Why are you still such a big booster of hyrbrids?

Reinert: Someone said a few years ago that the Prius was “yestertech” and that electric cars were the future. But the reality is that nearly every manufacturer that makes a car now makes hybrids. And I’m kind of proud of this. If you look at Le Mans race cars, they’re all 230-mile-per-hour hybrids that have both phenomenal power and phenomenal fuel economy. And we continue to improve them.

On the other hand, electric cars are basically an archaic vision that can be handled pretty easily by almost any home garage guy. Every year, hundreds of electric cars get made by garage mechanics across the globe. There’s really nothing you need other than a motor, some power electronics, a body to put the stuff in, and a battery. In comparison, hybrids have required a lot of innovation and are becoming great.

So to ignore a car that gets 60 miles to the gallon – and the new hybrids will – and say that the electric car is better because it doesn’t use any gasoline is ridiculous. It doesn’t use any gasoline but it uses carbon somewhere.

e360: You’ve also spoken out against ethanol for fuel. Why?

Ethanol has remarkably destructive properties in your gas tank, especially on cars and engines that aren’t driven very much, like seasonal boats. It absorbs water, and the water gets throughout the fuel system, and dirt or
I don’t believe anybody in the scientific community is seriously looking at bioethanol from corn.”
debris that’s normally in your tank gets emulsified. That gets plated out in your fuel system, and your car runs very poorly. This has been documented time and time again, and it’s especially bad for cars or applications that aren’t designed for high levels of ethanol. It really has no upside, and when we consider all of the damage that it does to our ecosystems, it is done for no good reason. I don’t believe anybody in the scientific community or at the Department of Energy is seriously looking at bioethanol from corn, except for the politicians.

e360: Ethanol advocates tell us that we need ethanol as an octane booster in our gasoline. Are there good alternatives to ethanol that might be used as octane boosters instead? What would you pick?

Reinert: I’d pick the bioethers. They’re not water contaminants and their half-life in the troposphere is very small. With a little more study I think they can make a contribution in improving the … octane of fuels and thus allow us to use them in the most advanced engines that we have right now. The trade-off with ethanol as an octane enhancer is that it’s hydroscopic [it

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absorbs water]. I would never make that choice, plus [ethanol] has such a giant footprint. In comparison, we can make these ethers pretty quickly and pretty easily.

The bioethers, dimethyl ether (DME) and diethyl ether (DEE), are synthesis gases made from waste products. Since they’re not a fermentation product like corn ethanol is, all of the carbon gets turned into fuel, whereas in fermentation, only the carbon that is converted into sugar gets used for fuel. DEE can be used in gasoline engines as an octane enhancer, and DME could be used to increase the cetane of diesel, or, it could replace diesel altogether.

I’ve had some wonderful conversations with people at the Department of Energy and what they want is a drop-in gasoline replacement. Ideally, we would be given optimum specifications, or fixed properties, for gasoline and diesel. There would be multiple pathways to arrive at those specifications, such as through syngas (synthesis gas). This could be done through a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) grant. The fuel you’d want to pick in the end would be the one with the lowest societal costs. This is what we really need to be doing, but unfortunately, we’re not doing it.



POSTED ON 02 Oct 2014 IN Business & Innovation Business & Innovation Climate Energy Energy Policy & Politics Science & Technology Sustainability Asia 

COMMENTS


Excellent article! I wish everyone would get out of their cars, which congest cities, hurt people especially with all the drivers looking down at their phones, and cause road rage decreasing quality of life. Batteries. Where does one put them on earth that is safe? Where do they come from.

Mixed use neighborhoods. Telecommuting. Local farming. Public transportation.

I say let's go carless!
Posted by Donna on 02 Oct 2014


So a former auto exec is "skeptical" about electric cars when one of them is the top rated car Consumer Reports has ever tested and the owners of these cars love them. However he support fuel-cell cars when producing the fuel for these cells requires more energy than the fuel contains. Also this article fails to mention the advances that have come and will continue to come that will make electric car the best choice.
Posted by bob fearn on 02 Oct 2014


Bill Reinert said: "...it’s hard to see where the case for an electric car really comes in. Is it for carbon reduction? No, you’d have to decarbonize the whole grid to make that case, and that’s not likely to happen. I don’t know the case for the electric car."

He must be unaware(?) that:
1) the grid on average is already "decarbonized" on average 1/3 more than using petroleum alone for transport, and in actuality more like 1/2 or greater in most places where EV adoption is and will grow, with even coal and of course natural gas generation being cleaner than the average gasoline engine car. And the grid keeps getting cleaner each couple years, as the recent Union of Concerned Scientists Studies show.

AND 3 more consumer reasons plus 3 more societal reasons:
2) consumer savings (lower 5 year average TCO)
3) convenience (most charging is at home and/or
work, and less maintenance)
4) better performance/instant torque
5) keeping fuel $ in local/domestic economy
6) long term energy security/stability
7) a foreign policy independent from energy policy

Bill Reinert: Consider yourself now "in the know".
Posted by Mark Renburke on 02 Oct 2014


Mr Reinert cannot be dumb, so I am forced to the conclusion he is being disingenuous in most of what he said, though why I have no idea.

There are several reasons which he could have cited against pure battery electric vehicles, the two most important being (a) BEVs are have a lot higher upfront cost, (b) unless you own a house with off-street parking and maybe a possibility of roof top solar panels owning a BEV becomes even more problematic. So not a vehicle for the bottom ??%.

Instead he claims BEVs will not improve much on what they already are, while internal combustion or fuel cell vehicles have much room for improvement. Not so. Current lithium-ion batteries are at 20% of their theoretical limit (so plenty of room for improvement there) while internal combustion engines are already getting close to the Carnot limit (so little room for improvement there). There is a some room to improve fuel cell efficiency but unfortunately not the efficiency of hydrogen production (the fuel they use) and that is where the real problems lie for FCEV (or FCVs as Toyota now refer to these).

So many other problems with the views expressed here but this comment is already too long.
Best regards.
Posted by dogphlap on 02 Oct 2014


I agree with Mark that the grid is vastly decarbonized in many states. Eg, here in Calif. Electric cars with 50+ mile range make sense for people whose daily driving is modest and who can recharge the battery at home overnight. In many/most families that one driver often drives less than 50 miles per day.
Posted by Richard Solomon on 02 Oct 2014


He has many statements that ignore the facts, as the previous commenter points out. I wonder how much of Bill Reinert's retirement is funded by oil and gas stocks?
Posted by Scott Lawrence Lawson on 03 Oct 2014


I would love to hear from you, Bill. You might really like what I have been working on, and for sure you will at least find it very interesting. Learn more at CargoFish.com, and please feel free to fill out the contact form.
Posted by Robert DeDomenico on 03 Oct 2014


My Tesla is powered by photovoltaics on my roof. How do you produce your own clean fuel for a gas hybrid? Mr. Reinert's criticisms of pure EVs do not ring true to most Tesla owners. Charging infrastructure is being built out very rapidly, and technology advances in EVs are every bit as prominent as in hybrids.

If Toyota doesn't take EVs seriously, they will pay the price down the road in market share. Gasoline is not the future, and fuel cells will never become as mainstream as EVs already are today, because the efficiency and economic numbers of idealized FCVs simply don't add up.
Posted by David on 03 Oct 2014


@ dogphlap and anyone else that care to read this...

I can think of one very good reason he might be being disingenuous - his (no doubt very significant) pension depends on it!

Personally, I am delighted to hear of his departure. I simply can't imagine how many desperately frustrated engineers (and maybe not a few accountants, too) at Toyota must be pulling their hair out over Toyota apparently pinning its colours to the mast of fuel cell vehicle technology when it is clearly a complete pile of nonsense.

I hope, very much, that other more sensible minds at Toyota will be permitted to develop the fabulous technology that Toyota engineers clearly have tucked away in their labs and maybe even give Tesla a run for their money.

As for the article itself, I was already groaning with disbelief before the end of Mr Reinart's first answer. Even that was full of falsehoods and inaccuracies.

Good bye and good riddance! MW
Posted by Martin Winlow on 03 Oct 2014


Classic case of a parent thinking their kid is the smartest kid in the class, mostly just because it is their kid. Of course one of the Fathers of the Prius thinks his brain-child's farts don't stink.

Back in reality, pure EV sales have been growing, while PHEV and hybrid sales have been dropping. The market disagrees with him.
Posted by Mister M on 03 Oct 2014


I'm amazed by the instances where Bill Reinert's
view of the world is opposite from what the rest of
us see.

He says there's nothing promising beyond lithium-
ion chemistry and its tremendous shortcomings. I
see lots of promising research that could
potentially eclipse lithium-ion. However, lithium-
ion is already proving adequate for the task.
Getting the cost down is the main requirement
now.

He doesn't expect batteries to get dramatically
better, but says the gasoline engine is getting
phenomenally better. I see batteries improving
year by year, with each generation of electric car
substantially outperforming the previous, while
gasoline engines have already been squeezed for
about all the efficiency that's possible from them.

He says decarbonizing the electrical grid is not
likely to happen. I guess we can all start getting
ready for the collapse of our civilization as the
fossil fuels run out? (And that's the say nothing of
climate change.) From where I sit, decarbonizing
the power grid is not only necessary, but it's
gradually happening.

He sees nothing in electric cars (battery or fuel
cell) that is compelling enough for someone to pay
extra money for. I see many advantages: less fuel
cost, less maintenance, smoother and quieter ride,
better acceleration, the convenience of charging at
home. I would pay more for those features, and a
lot of Tesla owners seem to agree.

Then he explains how car companies are being
forced to make EVs or FCVs, and they're just trying
to figure out how to lose the least amount of
money on them. That's an attitude straight out of
the 1990s and the era of the GM EV1. Tesla and
Nissan aren't playing that game.

Then he mocks the mechanical simplicity of the
electric car, as if it were a problem instead of an
advantage? I don't even understand that.

Posted by Tony Belding on 04 Oct 2014


Heaps of cars in Bulgaria run on natural gas, so if people in the poorest country in the EU can afford to convert their old ladas to run on natural gas then I think he is overestimating the cost and difficulty. The discussion has changed my views on electric cars. A lot depends on where you live and how the electricity is generated.
Posted by Pignut on 19 Oct 2014


The drop in replacement for gasoline has been around for years — easily produced in retrofitted ethanol production plants. It is called butanol. In fact, the perfect answer would be cellulosic butanol. Alas, because of politics and a lack of awareness, it will not happen. Hydrogen fuel cells are a distraction to delay viable alternatives. Electric vehicles may not be a perfect solution for everyone, but they work well for many early adopters with well-defined needs.
Posted by Lawson Barnette on 26 Nov 2014


Look, I'm going to state the obvious — this guy has no vision. Many of his statements are asinine!
Posted by Leo Kerr on 08 Dec 2014


Interesting and thought provoking article for sure, I just wonder about Tesla and the recent announcement by its CEO to upgrade the battery for their roadster. Article at http://www.opptrends.com/2014/12/tesla-motors-inc-nasdaqtsla-batteries-upgraded-for-roadster/
Posted by Mike on 26 Dec 2014


Nice............Skeptical of Electric Cars is amazing
www.eelectriccarsforkids.blogspot.com
Posted by Kasun Tharinda Munasinghe on 19 May 2016


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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kay McDonald writes about food security, energy, economics, and policy as they relate to agriculture. Her work has appeared in the The Washington Post, The Atlantic, and CNN, among other outlets. McDonald is also founder of the site Big Picture Agriculture.

 
 

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