Designing an Iconic 'Green' Car

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As national manager of advanced technology for Toyota, Bill Reinert is working on several advanced hybrid electric products.

Bill Reinert, (MS CivEngr ’81) is on a quest to reduce the impact of the automobile on society. He is national manager of advanced technology for Toyota where he coordinates Toyota’s research, development, and marketing for alternative-fueled vehicles and emerging technologies. Reinert helped design the current generation Prius, perhaps the most iconic “green” vehicle on the road and he and his team launched the first hydrogen powered fuel cell vehicles in commercial operation in the United States.

Q: Tell us how the Prius came about and what role you played in it.
A: We started on the Prius in 1992. It was called project G21 and the goal was to design a vehicle for the 21st century. The car had to carry five passengers and get great fuel economy. We didn’t start off to design a hybrid but that's where our research led us. We developed our first Prius with the Japanese market in mind around 1997 and started showing it at auto shows in North America.

I got involved in 1999 just as we were bringing the first generation to the U.S. market. Almost immediately we started designing its successor, the second generation model, the one that most folks identify as a Prius. I was co-leader of the product planning effort. Basically, we represented the voice of the customer. It was our job to identify all the problems with the first generation Prius and to come up with solutions.

It was a pretty cool job. We had a small team and could cover quite a bit of ground. Since there was never the expectation of large sales we didn’t have much supervision and could play around quite a bit. And we took advantage of that. I must admit that as we got closer to product launch I began to worry about some of the decisions we’d made. The car, after all, was quite different.

Anyway, we launched it and out of the box we had a success. But there was never a celebration or any recognition. One day we were working on it and the next day we weren’t. Just like that.

Q: How will Toyota’s next models improve on the Prius?
A: Each successive generation of Prius will improve in five basic areas: aerodynamics, hybrid development, engine development, materials (weight reduction) and cost reduction. We have targets for each area and generally know that we’re on track. I need to point out that the customer is always king so we’re never going to trade off customer acceptance for technical advances in one area or another. Having said that, you'll likely see us take Prius in areas that aren’t where you’d think we’d go.

Q: What energy technology do you think has the best outlook for the future: plug-in hybrids that can put power back into the grid, biofuels, hydrogen, or something else?
A: Your readers in Boulder probably won’t like this, but the best outlook until about 2030 is the conventional hybrid with low- carbon fuels, then later maybe fuel cells. The National Research Council just released its review on Plug-in Electric Vehicle (PEV) technology. Basically speaking, the advantages of the PEV are somewhat over-sold and the hurdles have been minimized. Compared to regular hybrids, the plug-ins offer only modest improvements in the reduction of GHGs and petroleum dependency. And the costs are very high. On the other hand, the new engines coming out of the labs are remarkably efficient with very low emissions. We’re learning how to make synthetic gasoline and diesel out of biostocks, hopefully algae.

Q: What do you think are the biggest challenges in achieving that vision?
A: The biggest challenges have always been the lack of consistent energy and environmental policy. Generally, governments want to pick winners as opposed to just setting goals. Each new administration has its own ideas about what we should be making. Then they get replaced and the next administration wants something different. So we change gears and get on with it. I’ve been through electric vehicles, compressed natural gas, methanol cars, ethanol cars, fuel cells, and now we’re back at electric vehicles.

Q: How did you get to this stage of your career? Take us back to the early 1980s at CU-Boulder when you were studying with Professor Jan Kreider. What were you doing and thinking at the time?
A: Well that takes us way back. When I first graduated, Jan and I were working under contract to (what was then) Mountain Bell and Bell Labs doing solar and wind work. That was in the heyday of the solar boom under President Carter. The Solar Energy Research Center (now NREL) had just opened in Golden and we thought the world was going to come to us. It didn’t quite work out that way. When President Reagan came into office he picked another winner and the solar bubble burst. Thirty years later, as an industry, it’s starting to heal. There were no energy jobs then, so I did what I could, I sold cars to make a living. In one way or another cars have always run through my life. But my work at CU, with Jan and David Feng and John Dow and Andy Yeger, taught me how to be an engineer; taught me how to adapt. I owe any success I’ve had to my years at CU.

Q: After you earned your master’s degree, you did some work maintaining solar- and wind-powered telephone towers in the Rocky Mountains. How did you transition from that job to working for an automaker?
A: After the solar and wind work went away, I bounced around for a couple of months and eventually ended up doing energy work for Hewlett Packard. Then one day I saw an ad in the Los Angeles Times for someone to work on building energy for Toyota in Los Angeles. I really wanted to work on auto design, and thought that maybe I'd take a chance. Just maybe I could get my foot in the door. So I did.

Q: How did you attain your current position at Toyota? To what do you attribute this success?
A: I gave myself a deadline at Toyota, if I didn’t see where I wanted to go within five or so years, I’d try something else. At first we were working on energy and environmental policy. Then, sure enough after about five years a chance came my way. Toyota was interested in distributed generation and thought we could put a team together. We did and started using computational fluid design to design gas turbines. Keep in mind this was way back in the mid-90s, so it was pretty new then. Anyway, we came up with some pretty remarkable microturbines. The project never went any where, but fortunately I caught the attention of my management and when the Prius job came along I was chosen. I’m not sure I’d call my career successful, but maybe some folks would see it that way. Any success I may have enjoyed came from the basic principles that were drilled into me by Jan and David and John. I’ve never forgotten that. The only thing I may bring to the table is I’m dogmatic and not afraid to take a risk.

Q: As a member of CU-Boulder’s new Energy Initiative Leadership Council, what do you hope to achieve?
A: In the few years I have left in my career I want to give back to CU. I’m keen that other students are afforded the same opportunities that I got. That someone will take a risk.

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