Toyota's Big Electric Car Blunder

Bill Reinert hates the plug-in electric car. He hates ethanol too. And what Bill Reinert hates matters to every car-buying American: he's Toyota's national sales manager and in-house energy sage, and he knows his stuff. But is he too smart for Toyota's good?

Bill ReinertAt a future-car panel in Southern California last week, he was quoted as calling ethanol "the dumbest kid in school" and saying that plug-in electrics "just aren't plausible right now" because of their wimpy 70 to 100 mile range. ("How many of your friends are going to buy that car?" he said of Shai Agassi's electric RAV4.)

Reinert's problem—and by extension, Toyota's—is that he's right. As I've written, even sustainable, power-dense biofuels that aren't corn-based can't scale anywhere near large enough to eclipse our need for fossil fuels, and 100 miles is 1/3 of the range we've come to expect from cars. The only electric cars that seem to have a fighting chance at pleasing over-expectant buyers are ultra-cheap, purpose-built city cars like the Wheego Whip (below)—and even those, as Reinert notes, still use electricity that is mostly generated with coal power. Companies like Tesla, which just opened its first East Coast dealership in New York, are much too sanguine about their Silicon Valley business models, says Reinert; in mass-market car sales, people want the most for the least.

Wheego Whip

So what's a car company to do? Toyota's mission with Reinert at the helm is to get as many people as possible into 50 mpg cars like the Prius while in the mean time developing ultra-sustainable fuel cell technology. But part of the appeal of the plug-in electric is the plug itself: we already have an electricity infrastructure that can charge cars, sustainably or not. By outsmarting the problem and working towards a fuel-cell future, Toyota and Reinert may end up outsmarting the consumer.

Don't believe me? Take the case of Japanese cell phone makers Panasonic, Sharp and NEC, the subject of an article in yesterday's The New York Times. The phones they produce for their domestic customers in Japan stream digital TV, act as RFID credit cards, surf the Internet at 4G speeds and generally behave as if they're about a decade ahead of Western cell phones, iPhone and Blackberry included. But as The Times observes, "Japanese cell-phone makers were a little too clever": by building high-end technology that required proprietary networks, they fenced out the global market that was moving more slowly. Now they're scrambling to backwards-engineer phones that can work on American and European networks. (Japanese phones, pictured below. Courtesy of NYTimes.com)

Japanese phones

Should Toyota (or other car makers) not heed the lesson, they'll find themselves in a similar position. As Kevin Czinger, CEO of Coda Automotive, another electric car company, recently explained to me, the cost of retrofitting California's rest stops to include electric car charging stations would register only in the low millions—but building safe, efficacious hydrogen filling stations in that same state would cost more by a factor of ten (or about $126 million just for California, according to one estimate). When you're dealing with states that have powerful environmental mandates but not much cash to back them up—witness the insolvency of states like California and New York—the stage is hardly set for a disruptive technology like hydrogen fuel to succeed. Should Toyota not give the electric car its due diligence, they may find themselves missing out on a very lucrative stop-gap product, and their #1 spot in jeopardy.

Related Stories:
25 Ways to Jump-Start the Auto Business
Inside Tesla's First East Coast Store
What's the Big Deal About the Wheego Whip?

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8 Comments

  • Ingrid Freemyer

    Having charging stations at rest stops is an interesting idea, but I don’t think I’d want to wait at a rest stop for 2 or more hours for my car to recharge—even 30 minutes! I’d rather refuel in a few minutes like I’m used to. Refueling with hydrogen only takes around 3 minutes (http://www.nrel.gov/hydrogen/d.... For a video of how to refuel (and other videos) click here http://www.h2andyou.org/videos...

  • Gary Sanchez

    If they make electric drive cars that can be plugged in and generate power with a natural gas engine, they can realize a huge increase in mileage on a low emissions fuel and long range.

  • John Tak

    Even if you retrofitted California's highway rest stops to include battery charging stations, how many drivers would want to stop to every 100 miles to charge their car and then wait patiently several hours for that charge. However, batteries and fuel cells working together can move a car more than 350 miles on a single fill of hydrogen and refuel in under five minutes. That's why not only Toyota, but also Honda, Nissan, GM, Ford, Volkswagen, Hyundai and others are investing in fuel cell electric cars.

  • Manjit Syven Birk

    I always like to do a personal drive-by check lest I join the crystal ball gazing business (no matter how profitable it might actually serve to be). If there is a mass-scale business proposition here for electric cars, just like magma, it will begin to start bobbling to the surface. In absence of a potential volcanic infrastructure for electric cars, what I can dig out of this article is right there in the first link written about Bob Reinert. The link at automobile mag is written by a writer called Preston Lerner. As I read it, his ability to capture a moment involving Reinert at a panel meeting was so well written, so I pushed the electric car thingy aside and detoured towards instead towards this writer. This is where I inevitably ended up is closing the loop for my own thinking because it led me to a wired article from 2008 about rockets http://www.wired.com/science/s... which is cool because that took me back to Steve Jurvetson's thoughts http://jurvetson.blogspot.com/ It is here it reminded me of something I lost sight off on my online travels. Jurvetson says in one of his posts "Celebrate immaturity. Play every day. Fail early and often. From what I can see, the best scientists and engineers nurture a child-like mind. They are playful, open minded and unrestrained by the inner voice of reason, collective cynicism, or fear of failure". Jurvetson's comments at his blog are not simply relevant to the disruptive innovation elements that Chris Dannen has outlined in his article here, but its relevant because IMHO new media requires a new media mindset which is not bereft of quality journalism. So often new media is accompanied with an old media mindset symbolized by talking @ people rather than alongside people or even dare I say it "with people" - (the only reason I am writing this is to figure this stuff out in my own head). So if my general feeling is that new mindsets are not keeping up with new media, then the electric car inevitably evolve on a slower migration path also. Yet as is the want of all geography teachers to show us the magma of change is always right under our own feet, so it just requires different way of looking at the same thing - for if I can inculcate in myself a new media mindset to engage with the rise of new media, then I think deserve to drive a top of the line electric car and driving one is so much better than thinking about when we all be driving one. . . M.

  • Ivan Ban

    There is no way that Toyota wins in any new technology over german cars. Especially in alternative fuels. Wait for electric VW's or Mercs to see the future.

  • D Mann

    You write "As I've written, even sustainable, power-dense biofuels that aren't corn-based can't scale anywhere near large enough to eclipse our need for fossil fuels"

    ...algae based bio diesel can produce 20,000 litres/acre (more if vertically farmed). The algae can be fed on CO2 bubbled from coal plants that would otherwise sequester it as an 'emission'.

    You also quote/comment plug-in EVs '"just aren't plausible right now" because of their wimpy 70 or 100 mile range'. The EV I built in my garage, using off the shelf components put into an RX-7 chassis, gets 270km range at highway speeds (more in town with regen braking). That's about 168 miles, and that's built by one guy on a limited budget. I don't for a minute believe that a company with the engineering and parts source resources that Toyota has can't match or exceed by a sizable margin what a backyard enthusiast has already achieved.

  • Allen Laudenslager

    I sail small boats where a marginal improvement can be the difference between winning and loosing. You can win by less than a second over several hours sailing.

    The difference in the future of hybrid and electric autos will be small improvements over long many years. Gee, just like the incremental improvements in gas powered cars over the last 100 years!