Toyota's Bill Reinert: Future of the Automobile

Pej Behdarvand

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?"

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