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.

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 improvements in the internal combustion engine — also stand in the way.

Bill Reinert. G. ASAKAWA/UNIV.

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 continue to be a market for them, but it’s going to be a very small market.

“I think natural-gas cars will be a very small market for a long time.”

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 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.

“To say the electric car is better because it doesn’t use any gasoline is ridiculous.”

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 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.

“I don’t believe anybody in the scientific community is seriously looking at bioethanol from corn.”

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 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.