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Toyota's Bill Reinert: 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?

Paul Scott, a founding member of Plug In America (and, like Agassi, the owner of an electric RAV4), has sparred with Reinert on several occasions. "He's a likable guy," Scott says, "and he believes in his product. But I think he makes a whole lot of money working for Toyota, and he's going to do whatever they want him to do. His pushing of the fuel-cell vehicle has, I think, delayed the implementation of the plug-in hybrid at Toyota many years. And to the degree that they have delayed the implementation of plug-in cars, they have hurt society and, ultimately, may hurt the company."

Whatever blue-sky idealism Reinert brought to the table has been tempered by the experience accumulated during his long, strange trip from growing up poor in a West Virginia coal-mining town to enlisting in the Navy during the Vietnam War, from spot-welding Ford Mavericks on an assembly line to manning isolated wind-energy research stations in the remotest reaches of the Rocky Mountains. "I'm not chasing rainbows," he says, "and I'm not here to cheerlead. My first rule is to do no harm. We fell in love with solar too rapidly, created a bubble, and it collapsed. We fell in love with EVs too rapidly, created a bubble, and it collapsed. I used to be a big 100-miles-per-gallon guy. But I realized that we're above the level of diminishing returns at 50 miles per gallon. So why not make a whole bunch of 50-miles-per-gallon cars and put people who are driving 20-miles-per-gallon cars into them?"

He shakes his head and smiles. People, his expression suggests, are a lot harder to figure than science.

I'm tailing Reinert's car--a Prius, naturally--to his house in Rancho Santa Margarita, California. Suddenly, he opens his window and starts waving his left arm. I have no idea why. Finally, I pull up next to him. "What's up?" I ask.

"This is where the Hilborn Fuel Injection shop used to be," he calls back. "I just thought you might like to know."

From what I'd read and heard before meeting Reinert, I'd expected him to be smart (check), quick-witted (check), and intimately familiar with cutting-edge technology (check, check, check, check, check). What I didn't realize was that he was such a big fan of the sort of cars that would benefit from a personal oil reserve.

Reinert lives with his wife, Pam, and three dogs in a tidy tract home tastefully personalized with handsome contemporary furnishings and drought-tolerant landscaping. The dominant piece of art in the living room is Jesse Alexander's arresting, black-and-white photo of Jimmy Clark after winning the Belgian Grand Prix in 1962.

In his bedroom is a display case filled with models ranging from a Porsche 908/3 to a Chevrolet Corvette Grand Sport. In the next room is a workshop. He opens a closet filled floor to ceiling with as-yet-unbuilt model kits. "This is my retirement," he jokes. In his home office is a computer on which he keeps hundreds of photos of the ongoing restoration of the Fiat Dino Spider that he eventually hopes to show at the Monterey Historics, where he makes an annual pilgrimage. Downstairs in his garage is a lovely 1984 Porsche 911 Carrera with 63,000 miles on the odometer.

"I drive it every chance I can get," he says. "But to relax, I take off the wheels, throw it up on jack stands, and clean every nut and bolt. I love the underside of the 911. It's got aluminum, it's got titanium, it's got magnesium, it's painted, it's polished, it's cad-plated. Every part is done the way it should be done. To me, it's more pleasing to be under the car than looking at the top of it."

Reinert has been a car guy as long as he can remember. As a teenager, he enjoyed an epiphany when he saw his first Alfa Romeo. "That was the day I quit liking American cars," he recalls. But he's worked on Ford assembly lines, once as a summer replacement and once as a UAW grunt punching out fifty-seven cars an hour. And he's done several stints selling cars--Ferraris, Porsches, Audis, Alfas, Fiats, Lancias, Lotuses, Renault Turbo 2s, and, for exactly one day, Hondas.

The rest of Reinert's résumé would give a human-resources manager hives. Five years as a nuclear submariner. A stretch as a truck driver. Another in a municipal water and sewer department. A stay in a flophouse while he tried to land a Merchant Marine berth. Then to college to earn a degree in biopsychology. (At the time, he wanted to be a veterinarian.) Then, after a long hiatus and forgoing plans to study architecture, graduate school and a master's degree in the emerging field of energy engineering.

"He did better than I expected with his background," says his mentor, Dr. Jan Kreider, who had founded the program at the University of Colorado. "It basically was his motivation that pulled him through. He probably got A's in everything. After he graduated, I hired him, and we worked together for Bell Labs AT&T on renewable energy systems. That seemed to capture his imagination."

After the Bell Labs research money dried up, Reinert worked for Hewlett-Packard on green buildings that pioneered the use of artificial intelligence to monitor energy usage. Next, he moved on to facilities management at Toyota's massive campus in Torrance. On his own time, he noodled over fuel cells for home use and helped design an advanced microturbine. Internal politics killed the program. "But as a consolation prize," Reinert says, "we had the EV program, and we were just getting ready to introduce the first-gen Prius, so they sent me over to product planning, which is where I've always wanted to work anyway."

Reinert's small group promoted the internally controversial hatchback shape--which he likens to a Lancia Beta--of the second-gen Prius and correctly predicted that it would be a smash in the American market when it debuted in 2003. And his reward was . . . nothing. "At Toyota," he explains, "there's not individual credit for a success--nor individual responsibility for a failure. So far as I know, nobody who worked on that project got promoted."

But by then, Reinert had already stretched beyond product planning. He hired geologist Peter Wells, a consultant who used his extensive database of Middle East oil reserves to model the supply side of the oil equation while most experts fixated on demand. Based on Wells's research, Reinert reached a startling conclusion: he predicted that gasoline prices were going to spike to crisis levels. As oil soared past $100 per barrel, Reinert's star rose with it.

"That gave us street cred," he says. "Japan started giving us budget--which had never happened before--to do technical reports on natural gas and future fuels and low-carbon fuel standards and cap-and-trade systems and other scenarios. The fact that I have a lot of scientist buddies and we had all this accumulated experience about regulation encouraged them to listen to us."

Reinert's cozy relationship with Toyota Motor Corp. in Japan has ruffled feathers at Toyota Motor Sales, the U.S. subsidiary that employs him. So has his willingness to buck the company line. "At some level," he says, "there's an understanding that consensus isn't always good. You also need an outside view, and for whatever reason, they let me provide it. But a lot of people don't understand how deeply committed I am to Toyota, because I'm so critical of the company. And I think they'll be glad when I walk away."

Tired of the constant infighting and nearly 300,000 miles of airline travel a year, Reinert tells me that he plans to retire on September 1. But later, when I mention this to Shearer, his old friend just laughs. "He's been saying that for years," Shearer scoffs.

I'm thinking that those models in the closet upstairs can wait a while longer.