Toyota is known for its antagonistic stance on electric vehicles, but it doesn’t dwell on that position very often. However, the carmaker’s chief technical officer spoke at length on the subject this month in an interview with car† He says that electric cars are not the ultimate solution for transportation and that we need to be clearer about the social and environmental problems associated with pushing everyone into electric cars.
Gill Pratt is a chief scientist at Toyota and CEO of the Toyota Research Institute with impressive titles and an impressive resume. Among other things, he was an associate professor at MIT and was once a computer expert for DARPA. Consistent with decades of scientific findings, Pratt recognizes the “incredibly serious problem” of climate change and advocates doing everything in our power to prevent it and then reverse it. However, the role of EVs is one that he believes has too much “hype” and closes our minds to other technological solutions.
“The mistake being made now is that some people think EVs are the silver bullet,” Pratt told me car† “So much really good is being done to reduce CO2 emissions and I think reduction targets are great for measuring results. But I’m really concerned in the short term that prescribing the way to achieve that reduction will result in an oscillation.”
The shortcomings of electric cars are now well documented. Most of their problems stem from their batteries, which include being heavy, made of materials of limited availability, and resulting in huge CO2 emissions during production. Pratt says these problems aren’t inherent, but thinks it’s foolish to expect them to go away on their own. Instead, he says it’s best to use our current battery power efficiently.
“To be clear, these problems are surmountable,” Pratt said of the problems of EV batteries. “But it’s a matter of time and a pace of growth, not a transition from one day to the next. There’s an element of hubris in explaining how many electric cars have to be there by a certain date, because nobody knows the supply of raw materials or the impact on the planet of making and using them, that data just doesn’t exist.
“Until we know, I think it’s often better to use the batteries we have as often as possible — and that’s where hybrids have an advantage.”
When it comes to hybrids, Pratt specifically favors plug-in hybrids (PHEVs) which he finds directly advantageous over EVs for several reasons. They do not have the inflexibility of EVs, meaning they are independent of inconsistent charging infrastructure and thus less resistance to adoption. They use less battery material than EVs and use it more efficiently. Pratt was adamant that both them and other technologies should be considered, rather than “prescribed” as EVs are.
“What I have a problem with is prescribing the right solution,” Pratt said. “The right solution isn’t a single technology – or at least we can’t say it is today with any confidence. I’d rather see the technologies that make the most difference to the planet available and the technologies that can do the most.” make a difference to the planet being explored with potential for real-world application.”
Pratt also highlighted the potential of hydrogen, which, like PHEVs, is a technology that his employer has vocally supported in lieu of EVs. To his credit, Pratt understands why he could be accused of having a vested interest in hydrogen fuel cells rather than EVs, as Toyota does. But the evidence is in his favor: Electric cars can’t fill every niche. You can’t force a single solution for every problem, and betting too hastily on that solution leaves no room for more appropriate solutions indirectly.
Pratt’s views have been confirmed by: The ride‘s reporting, such as our deep dive into electric pickup trucks, which found that electric power alone isn’t enough to make up for the energy intensity of large vehicles. Similarly, Pratt’s belief that hydrogen should establish itself in heavy and industrial vehicles aligns with independent experts such as the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory†
While unpopular with EV proponents, Pratt’s stance on EVs (which no doubt brought Toyotas up to speed) is well-founded, and Pratt admits there are holes in it. The puzzle of sustainable transportation is one that humanity is still putting together. And if the top scientist at one of the world’s largest automakers admits that even he doesn’t have all the parts, then we can honestly say the rest of us don’t either.
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