Tuesday, July 14, 2009

NEWS Future of the Automobile

Bill Reinert, Toyota's in-house energy guru and resident contrarian, looks like he's just taken a whiff of a long-expired container of milk.

Reinert is serving on a future-of-the-car panel at a high-powered green-think conference sponsored by Fortune magazine and featuring heavyweights such as President Bill Clinton and Bill Ford. Although the symposium is being held in a button-down bastion of Orange County, the ambience is totally Silicon Valley, all iPhones and Aeron chairs, with lots of clever but undercapitalized tech entrepreneurs sniffing around for angel investors. At the moment, Shai Agassi, the charismatic founder of Better Place, is making a dynamic pitch for creating vast networks of battery-charging stations to support electric vehicles that will, he claims, be cheaper than the equivalent gasoline-powered cars. While executives from Ford, BMW, and Fisker Automotive listen with polite smiles, Reinert squirms in his seat, crosses and recrosses his legs, and generally behaves like a schoolkid who can't wait for the bell to ring so he can escape for recess.

When it's his turn to speak, Reinert bites his tongue. He mildly questions the viability of Agassi's wildly improbable plan to create battery-swapping stations for the coming wave of EVs. He lobs a few gentle barbs in the direction of the ethanol lobby, which he privately regards with unalloyed scorn. He outlines his genuinely radical vision of a future where publicly owned and shared cars are used to complete urban mass-transit systems. But by and large, he's on his best behavior, showing the benevolent public face of the world's greenest car company. Until the mics are turned off.

"That's the first law of Disney at work--wishing will make it so," he mutters shortly after bolting out of the conference room and yanking off his tie. "Using ethanol for fuel is like electing the dumbest kid in school as class president. As for plug-in electrics, they're just not plausible right now. Lithium-ion batteries are too expensive by at least an order of magnitude. They're not energy-dense enough. And we generate a lot of our electricity from coal. I don't think Shai is being disingenuous. I think he really believes what he's saying. I see it all the time from those Palo Alto types. They think the whole world is like a computer company, and they're always trying to recreate the dot-com economy. You see exactly the same mind-set with Tesla. It's all going to work out. It worked out with eBay. It worked out with SAP. But transportation is a different world. I mean, Shai's bragging about driving an electric RAV4 with a seventy-mile range. How many of your friends are going to buy that car?

As national manager of Toyota Motor Sales' advanced technology group, Reinert supervises a brain trust--four full-time employees and several outside consultants-- with the freedom to explore, well, just about anything. At the most conventional level, they play the role of product planners, and their fingerprints are all over the new, third-generation Prius. But Reinert also is charged with forecasting fuel prices, analyzing new technology, predicting (and influencing) regulatory developments, conducting life-cycle modeling, and anticipating demographic trends. Trained as an engineer focusing on renewable energy, Reinert is a passionate car guy with a vintage Porsche in his garage. He is an unlikely character playing an unlikely role as corporate fortune-teller, gazing at a crystal ball of his own design to keep Toyota ahead of the curve.

"Bill is a futurist," says his longtime friend David Shearer, a scientist and entrepreneur who's devoted most of his career to the study of renewable energy. "He's a big thinker, and he always has the larger context in mind. He's a leading light in the energy and next-generation transportation spaces. He's superbright, but he can talk about these things in a way that people can understand. And he's able to create bridges to the NGOs [nongovernmental agencies] that are so important in driving these big ideas forward. He has the unique gift of being able to talk to different groups, create excitement, and prepare them to accept ideas that might appear to be contrary to what they believe in. But Bill speaks the truth no matter what group he's with, and sometimes he doesn't make friends doing that."

At first glance, Reinert seems like a singularly poor fit at Toyota, a notoriously conservative company with a rigid corporate hierarchy. Reinert is, by his own account, something of a loose cannon. At 61, he still bears the residue of his hippie years; his young staffers call him Uncle Bill. Also, the glib--and often controversial--pronouncements that have made him a favorite with the media haven't always played well in a corporate culture that prizes the group more than the individual.

Outside Toyota, Reinert is the company's most articulate - and highest-profile - spokesman on energy issues. (Scott Samuelsen, director of the National Fuel Cell Research Center, calls his lively presentations "out-of-body experiences.") But although Reinert is himself a staunch environmentalist and he's pushing research in areas ranging from fuel cells to carbon sequestration, he doesn't have much time for conventional wisdom or political correctness. He's been especially critical of the commercial prospects for EVs, and he was cast as one of the skeptics in Who Killed the Electric Car?
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