Toyota’s Energy Bill

  • 10-Jun-2008 07:35 EDT
Bill Reinert leads Toyota’s U.S. planning for advanced-propulsion and alt-fuel vehicles.

The responsibility for making vehicles more efficient has traditionally been in the hands of the auto industry and those who regulate it. But as electrified drivetrains and alternate fuels gain favor, the energy infrastructure should play a greater role in reducing transportation’s overall environmental impact.

That is the way Bill Reinert sees it, although his well-known pragmatism often is out of sync with regulators’ agendas. And sometimes Toyota Motor Corp.’s frank-speaking National Manager of U.S. Advanced Technology even surprises those who lobby against the industry in the cause of simplistic “environmentalism.”

“The recent U.S. Energy Bill passed tailpipe and mpg regulations but contained nothing aimed at the utility industry,” said Reinert. “If we choose to meet the tailpipe/mpg regulations with a plug-in hybrid strategy, we might be getting better overall fuel economy, but we’d be increasing carbon emissions because of the CO2 from the coal-fired powerplants.”

He argues that the automotive and the electric-power industries are responsible for roughly 17% and 40%, respectively, of U.S. CO2 emissions—but autos seem to get 100% of the focus.

“While the auto industry is seen as constantly stepping up and doing the job, it seems that infrastructure is increasingly falling behind. And that has not been an issue,” Reinert asserted.


Fast-charging fantasy

But even with a passion for 1950s and ‘60s sports-racing cars (he counts Lotus founder Colin Chapman as a hero), Reinert also applies his knowledge outside the industry. His rare time off from Toyota duties often finds him with the World Wildlife Fund in the Galapagos Islands, where he is working on a clean-energy-use model for developing nations.Such a background helps keep Reinert firmly grounded and focused on the big picture. For example, the recent excitement shown by the public and some automakers over plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles, much of it generated by General MotorsChevrolet Volt extended-range electric program, elicits caveats from Reinert. It is that infrastructure thing again.


“If you buy into the idea that a plug-in hybrid should be more like an EV and have a 30-40 mi range, then we’re talking serious kW to charge the battery,” he said. And talk about ‘fast’ battery charging simply pegs his personal voltmeter.

“It drives me crazy,” Reinert exclaimed. “If you’ve got a 25 kW/h battery pack and you want to fast-charge it in 10 min, that would require an inrush of 100 kW. As reference, your home is sized for about 10 kW. Sure, you only needed that power for 10 min, but you needed 100 kW.

“That kind of effect has to be felt throughout the entire grid—from the lines going down to the fast-charge station and out to the pole,” he continued. “It affects the size of the pole and the transformer that hangs on it. Its impact goes all the way to the guy shoveling coal at the power station.

“And for people not to recognize this and say, ‘We’ll just fast-charge ‘em,’ well that’s crazy. With such a system you’d lose spontaneous mobility, and I don’t think anyone wants that.”

The concept of charging a growing fleet of plug-in hybrids and EVs during the so-called ‘off-peak’ hours at night is valid to an extent, Reinert believes. But still undetermined is the public’s discipline in its charging habits. Will they always plug in at night?

“That’s the model being perpetrated for plug-ins—that infrastructure’s not a big deal,” he said. “Well, maybe not, as long as the load is being uniformly distributed, rather than clustered in neighborhoods where there are 50-year-old homes that are already going off line because the transformers overheat. That’s increasingly the case today.”

And there are changes and upgrades made to the nationwide distribution as the market for plug-ins and EVs grow, he noted, adding that such cooperation between electric utilities and the public is not common.

The U.S. electric-utility grid currently is not capable of sustaining an EV-charging environment, Reinert believes.

“We have a 250-million car fleet, but the existing infrastructure couldn’t possibly keep up with a fleet of 5 million plug-in hybrids or EVs,” he said.


Toyota’s plug-in mules

Reinert’s caveats, often laced with dry wit, continue while Toyota ramps up real-world testing of 20 plug-in Priuses. The program, being conducted in the U.S. and Europe, is aimed at gathering vehicle-performance and consumer data that Toyota plans to incorporate in any future plug-in vehicle program. The American activities are being handled in collaboration with the University of California-Irvine and UC-Berkeley.

Reinert calls the plug-in mule fleet with fairly cheap, existing technology “an investigative first step.”

“We’re trying to answer many questions important to engineers, planners, and customers, such as, ‘How big should the car’s battery be?’ Battery size is a major factor in overall systems cost; Reinert reckons that every 20 mi of extended range with a plug-in hybrid adds approximately $10,000 to the vehicle’s price. And what if customers do not feel like charging the battery?

Squeezing another couple of miles’ electric-only range out of the proven, relatively simple NiMH-based powertrain, to give 10 mi total EV range, might provide higher value than a more expensive, unproven, lithium-ion battery pack. But Toyota has already announced the 2009 Prius will get a lithium pack, offering a packaging advantage and longer EV range in the least.

But how will it figure into a low-carbon or even zero-carbon future transportation strategy that is feasible in California (given that state’s diverse array of power sources) but faces infrastructure challenges across most of the U.S.?

"I think the future is going to be more business-as-usual—that we’re actually going to go from 50% coal [generated electric power in the U.S.] to 70% coal," Reinert said. "And I don’t see carbon sequestration happening.”

Reinert said he wishes the situation was different. But he admits the politics of coal—its mining, transportation, usage and cheap power that results—are huge embedded issues.

“There is a lot of inertia there,” he noted. “And we can’t change it overnight.”

Toyota could not have picked a more qualified or observant individual to lead its long-range product planning for alternative-fueled vehicles and sustainable transportation systems, including hybrids, fuel cells, and pure EVs. After serving in the U.S. Navy as an engineering officer on “boomers,” as ballistic-missile nuclear submarines are whimsically known, he landed at Bell Labs and Hewlett-Packard developing advanced energy systems and neural networks, before joining Toyota in 1990.
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