Toyota Chief Scientist: Avoid EV ‘mono-culture’

Toyota bZ4x unveiling LA.png

At Informa’s recent Automotive Tech Week speaker series, Gill Pratt, CEO and Chief Scientist of Toyota Research Institute, gave a presentation titled “Toyota’s Approach to Carbon Neutrality.” (Click here for a story about it.)

Previously, Wards interviewed him about the automaker’s multifaceted electrification strategy, which drew criticism from EV advocates such as the Sierra Club and Greenpeace.

The groups say Toyota is slow to develop battery electric vehicles. Still, the automaker pioneered battery-electric hybrid vehicles, just introduced the next 23 bZ4X BEVs, and plans to expand its range of electrified vehicles to 70 models, including 15 dedicated BEVs. Its goal is carbon neutrality by 2050.

In the interview, Pratt (photo below, left) discusses Toyota’s roadmap, batteries, and the impact of public policy on achieving industry zero emissions goals.

Neighborhoods: You talk about avoiding an electric vehicle monoculture. What does that mean exactly? And could that risk looking like heresy to an EV advocate?

Pratt: To be clear, I’m a big fan of battery electric vehicles. I was involved for decades in designing hardware for electric vehicles and helped found a company that made them.

But I am concerned about climate change. It is carbon dioxide emissions that we want to reduce. Electric vehicles are a wonderful way to do that in some parts of the world for some people. But in other parts of the world, for some time to come, the infrastructure won’t be there for electric vehicles to be the best way to reduce CO2. In these parts of the world, there are other technologies that could maximize CO2 reduction.

That’s why I don’t think a monoculture is the right idea, certainly in the short term. And in the long term, we don’t really know. How many fuel cells will there be, how many BEVs? In the shorter term, there are many different technologies we can use to reduce CO2.

WardsAuto: The late Speaker of the House, Tip O’Neill, once said that all politics is local. Does something like this apply here. If you live in an area whose electrical grid relies on burning coal to create electricity to power electric vehicles versus somewhere with wind, solar, or hydro power, coal burning areas shouldn’t they have electric vehicles?

Pratt: What you are talking about here is what is called the carbon intensity of electricity production: the amount of CO2 emitted for each kilowatt hour of electrical energy.

It is certainly an effect. In Japan right now, because they shut down almost all the nuclear power plants there, fossil fuels power most of their grid. There is a shortage of electricity during the summer months. It would therefore be difficult for them to convert to BEVs in the short term. In the long term, all of this may change. But this is an example where we have to think about other technologies in some parts of the world until the power grid and infrastructure is there to support a BEV response.

WardsAuto: What are the alternatives to BEVs?

Pratt: A plug-in hybrid electric vehicle is one of them. I happen to own one. It’s an exciting vehicle because it can use both types of infrastructure. What’s nice is that it doesn’t contain the full battery of a BEV, just a sixth or eighth of that. It saves a huge amount on battery production and the CO2 emitted when manufacturing those batteries in the first place. This is what we call the carbon return on investment.

WardsAuto: I was talking to Jeff Hemphill, who is CTO for a German supplier (Schaeffler). He said that the purpose of batteries would be to make them smaller, more powerful and less expensive. It looks like a triple play. Is it difficult?

Pratt: Among the key parameters we look at, the cost is of course a huge one. (BEV) are about to be profitable compared to other cars. We expect the cost by 2025 to be 30% lower than it is now.

Let me add more to your friend list. One is durability. The other is charging speed. How fast can I charge an electric vehicle without too much heat and without damaging the battery itself.

WardsAuto: Internal combustion engines have been around since the early days of the automobile. Billions of dollars and years of R&D have gone into it. How hard will it be to leave all that behind and replace it with something else?

Pratt: I want to make it clear. We are not afraid of change. We are sensitive to everyone’s quality of life. The objective is to reduce CO2, not to advocate one technology over another.

Due to the diversity of circumstances around the world, we don’t need to make a drastic change. This would not be the best way to promote the greatest CO2 reduction.

WardsAuto: By step change, do you mean a full pivot?

Pratt: Law. What if we all said, “Tomorrow, no more ICE cars, only BEVs?” First of all, the world is not ready for this; there is not enough charging infrastructure. Plus, we believe we can remove more CO2 from the air by taking a diverse approach. We try to answer the most difficult question: how can we best use each technology?

WardsAuto: I think what you’re saying is that there will be a cadence of alternatively powered vehicles.

Pratt: Yes.

WardsAuto: Who decides that? The public, automakers, government, all three?

Pratt: All three. And it’s different in different parts of the world. In the end, the customer chooses what he wants. We can’t make things that people won’t buy. It varies across the world. We also need to listen to policy makers around the world. Finally, we ourselves have a strong desire to help the environment as much as we can. These three things guide us.

(Society) should try not to be so arrogant in our assessments of which technology for decades to come will be the best answer. Instead, use the financial resources that we are fortunate to have and invest in several of them. Let the future imagine itself.

WardsAuto: Is it as easy or expensive as betting everything?

Pratt: We try to be smart about bets. For example, why are we still working on hydrogen fuel cells? A lot of people say it’s a diversion and a waste of money, and you’re not ready to admit it and BEV. Well, we also make BEVs. We are lucky enough to be old enough to do both.


Interior of the Toyota bZ4X BEV 2023.

WardsAuto: Fuel cells are an intriguing proposition. Hydrogen is one of the most abundant elements on Earth. If it’s powering a vehicle and a water mist comes out of the tailpipe, that’s nirvana, right? But Elon Musk calls them “dumb cells”.

Pratt: We never talk about any other OEM…

WardsAuto: And I’m not asking you.

Pratt: Let me put this correctly, without referring to him. Not only will the supply of battery cells be limited, but every battery cell we manufacture emits CO2.

WardsAuto: A lot of people don’t know that.

Pratt: A lot of people don’t. The current numbers are quite high. So if you go ahead and put in CO2 to make a cell, for God’s sake find a way to use it in a way that saves a lot more CO2 when using it than you have put in the air when you made it.

Our thinking is that if we have a diverse set of powertrains we can make more cars that save more CO2 in total, for example taking that big battery from the BEV and making more PHEVs which could save a lot more CO2. , because there are more of them than just the long-range BEV. We need to get the most out of every battery we make.

WardsAuto: That makes sense, and yet range is such a factor in the electric vehicle discussion, and it’s used as a marketing tool.

Pratt: You are absolutely right. We believe, however, that PHEVs eliminate range anxiety.

WardsAuto: seems to be the best of both worlds. Dan Neil, an automotive writer for the the wall street journaltrashed the PHEVs in an article.

Pratt: Rather than criticizing the person who wrote the article, let me talk about the idea here. Mainly in Europe, some exotic plug-ins have extremely short battery life. It was sort of a trick used to comply with regulations. You cheat a little. We don’t want to do that at all. We want to create plug-ins that significantly reduce CO2 emissions in ordinary car use – and reduce range anxiety.

Steve Finlay is a retired editor of WardsAuto. He can be reached at [email protected].


2023 Toyota bZ4X in Supersonic Red.