Reinert Interview: Which is Best to Power Cars? Batteries, Hybrid Technology, Internal Combustion Engines, or Fuel Cells?

Today is the tenth post in this Monday series of subjects covered during my summer 2014 interview of Bill Reinert, recently retired energy engineer for Toyota who played a key role in the development of the Prius and then assumed the role of future transportation planning of alternative-fueled vehicles at Toyota. See his full bio here. –Kay M.

Toyota’s 3-Wheel iRoad Car

K.M.: Today, manufacturers are going multiple directions in methods to power cars. You spent your career studying the pros and cons of the advanced technologies used in cars and in trying to foresee which ones made the most sense. Many people, including Elon Musk, expect that electric cars can solve our transportation problems. You saw through that pipe dream long ago and maintain your position that electric cars are not the best answer, and time has proven you right so far from the demand side. What are your current thoughts about electric cars?

Reinert: Essentially my position on electric cars hasn’t changed. There’s nothing promising beyond the lithium battery on the battery horizon. 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. Some Leaf owners are only getting 50 miles per charge, now, following the Leaf’s battery life degradation. 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 superchargers are currently 200 miles away from each other. To get from one supercharger to another you have to hyper mile that car. That means you have to drive around 50 miles an hour because wind resistance increases at the cube of speed, and you have to keep your air conditioner and other accessories off.

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. 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.

But I will say there is a worthwhile role for electrification in the car and that’s in the high performance hybrid. To illustrate this we can look at racing. Racing development was what used to help engineers develop better cars for the road. Then, it got to the point where road cars became way more sophisticated than racing cars. But now if you look at Formula One, they don’t talk about hybrids, they talk about energy harvesting, so that anytime you let up on the gas, energy gets stored. By storing massive amounts of energy into a battery or ultra capacitor, the cars are fast, and, they get great fuel economy.

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, not a captive market.

K.M.: Liquid natural gas 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. There are LIquid Petroleum Gas (LPG) taxis all over Tokyo, and while that’s different from CNG, the tank and delivery system is very similar to that required by CNG, so you can make an analogy. The trunk space in those taxis becomes limited for Americans who tend to pack heavily when they travel because the LPG tank is in the taxi’s trunk.

Given that natural gas is much cheaper than diesel, at least by half or more, that makes it 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.

So the cost to make a car that runs on CNG, is a few thousand 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. The Honda Civic CNG car is a nice enough car, but it only has a 200 mile range and a very tiny trunk due to the fact that the rear axle goes diagonally from one side to the other, like a big X across the car so the tanks can sit about it.

K.M.: What about fuel cell cars? Can they replace liquid fuels?

Reinert: Let me offer an illustration to answer this question.

A photographer friend of mine made a photo-shopped piece of art for my garage titled “Two Dead End Roads”. In the middle is an abandoned filling station and at one of the dead ends is the electric car and at the other dead end is the fuel cell car. Laying along the sides of the two roads are dead batteries on the one side, and dead fuel cells on the other. Every day it reminds me of the futility of all of this.

Battery cars are the result of a global regulatory push, not a consumer pull. If we’d throw away all of the incentives you’d probably still sell the Tesla, but I’m not so sure that the Leaf would survive.

And fuel cell cars are more of the same. 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 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 OEMs investigate the two technologies, they see that FCs offer more room for performance improvement and cost reduction potential, and that is why you will be seeing more fuel cells in the future.

Of course, sometime we may have a liquid fuel supply problem, but not for many decades.

K.M.: You were involved in designing Toyota’s hugely successful Prius. How does “ignoring the good while reaching for the perfect” apply to car technology?

Reinert: A top level California politician stated about three years ago that the Prius was “yestertech”. He said that it’s not the future, but that electric cars are 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) to say “this electric car is better because it doesn’t use any gasoline” is ridiculous. It doesn’t use any gasoline but it uses carbon somewhere.

To see last week’s interview subject on the future of the electrical grid, click here.

Coming next week will be Reinert’s comments on the drawbacks of using ethanol in cars and he names options that are better choices than ethanol as fuel octane boosters.

What to Get a Gardener for Christmas

This list is based purely on the items which I’ve found most useful for gardening over the years. There are a few items on the list which I can’t imagine gardening without, like the rubber tubs with handles. Weeding is a big part of gardening and there are at least four items below which aid in weeding, although some of them are actually multi-purpose tools.

Readers are welcome to add to this list with suggestions in the comments.

1. The Japanese hand hoe. This is THE BEST short-handled hoe I can imagine. We literally fight over it at our house. I bought it for myself and found it missing all of the time, so my husband bought me a new one as he’d stolen the one that I bought… you get the picture. They sell them at our local McGuckin Hardware store.

2. The “Made in Holland” long handled hoe. This is my husband’s favorite hoe and he swears by it. He’s tried others and nothing else will do. Unfortunately, we can’t locate them anymore. If readers know where to buy one, please leave a comment.

3. The Hori-hori knife. This one that I have is made by A.M. Leonard. It is good for planting seedlings and for digging, and from what I hear, many serious gardeners love it and use it even more than I do.

4. The serrated-scoop style trowel. I use this all the time for planting seedlings and potted plants, for scraping small weeds away, and even for moving dirt. This is one of my most-used garden tools and it has held up well over more than a decade of use.

5. The rubber tub. We have three rubber tubs for gardening at our house – two large ones and this medium-sized one. We use them for everything and at any given time two, if not all three of them are in use. This black one stays on the patio and is used for kitchen scraps which will be moved to the back compost pile later.

6. The knee pad. This comes in handy frequently, and I often use it to sit on, too.

7. The water sprinkler hose attachment. This is made by Nelson and is a good-quality sprinkler for hand watering. Another option (not pictured) that I also love and wouldn’t be without is the old-fashioned brass nozzle sprayer, the same as my grandparents used, because you can adjust the distance of the spray.

8. The pickaxe. This may not be necessary for everyone, but since we moved to Boulder it is about No. 1 on my gardening tool list, because there are rocks in the ground “everywhere” you happen to dig, rendering shovels useless.

9. The small sharp pruner. I use this a lot and appreciate how sharp it is. This one is Soboten 1210, another garden tool which I love that is made in Japan.