EVs Aren’t a ‘Silver Bullet’ for Climate Change, Says Toyota’s Top Scientist
Toyota’s lab coat-in-chief thinks people are being a little too bearish about hybrids and hydrogen.
Toyota is known for its antagonistic stance toward electric vehicles but doesn't often elaborate on that position. However, the automaker's top technical mind spoke at length on the topic in an interview this month with Autocar. He says EVs aren't the end-all solution for transportation and that we have to be clearer about the social and environmental problems associated with shoving everyone into electric cars.
Gill Pratt is chief scientist at Toyota and CEO of the Toyota Research Institute with impressive titles and an impressive resume. Among other posts, he was an associate professor at MIT and was once a computing expert for DARPA. Consistent with decades of scientific findings, Pratt acknowledges the "incredibly serious issue" of climate change and advocates for doing everything within our power to head it off, then reverse it. The role of EVs, however, is one he says has too much "hype" and closing our minds to other technological solutions.
"The mistake being made now is that some people think EVs are the silver bullet," Pratt told Autocar. "There's so much genuine good being done to reduce CO2, and I think reduction targets are a great thing to measure the outcomes. But I really worry in the short term that prescribing the way to accomplish that reduction is going to result in an oscillation."
Indeed, EVs' shortcomings are well-documented by now. Most of their problems stem from their batteries that, among many things, are heavy, made with materials of limited availability, and result in tremendous CO2 emissions during manufacturing. Pratt says these problems aren't inherent but considers it foolish to expect them to go away on their own. Instead, he says it's best to use our current battery supply efficiently.
"To be clear, these problems are surmountable," Pratt said of EV batteries' issues. "But it's a matter of time and about a rate of growth, not an overnight switch. There's an element of hubris to declaring how many electric cars should be made by a certain date, because nobody can accurately predict the supply of raw materials or the impact on the planet of creating and using them. That data simply doesn't exist.
"Until we know, I believe 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 is specifically a proponent of plug-in hybrids (PHEVs) that he considers immediately advantageous over EVs for several reasons. They don't have the inflexibility of EVs, meaning independence from inconsistent charging infrastructure and thus diminished resistance to adoption. They use less battery material than EVs and use it more efficiently. Pratt was adamant that they as well as other technologies must be taken into account, rather than "prescribed" the way EVs are.
"What I have a problem with is the correct solution being prescribed," Pratt said. "The correct solution isn't a single technology—or at least we can't say that it is with any confidence today. I would rather see the technologies that make the most difference to the planet available and the technologies that could make the most difference to the planet being investigated with potential for real-world application."
Pratt also emphasized the potential of hydrogen, which like PHEVs, is a technology his employer has vocally supported instead of EVs. To his credit, Pratt understands why he could be accused of having a vested interest in hydrogen fuel cells over EVs as Toyota does. But the evidence is in his favor: EVs can't fill every niche. You can't force a single solution to every problem, and too hastily committing to that solution doesn't leave room for circumstantially more appropriate solutions.
Pratt's positions have been corroborated by The Drive's reporting, such as our deep-dive into electric pickups, which showed electric power alone isn't enough to make up for the energy-intensiveness of large vehicles. Similarly, Pratt's belief that hydrogen should establish itself in heavy and industrial vehicles is aligned with independent experts like the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
While unpopular with EV proponents, Pratt's attitude toward EVs (which no doubt informed Toyota's) is well-grounded, and it's one Pratt admits has holes. The puzzle of sustainable transport is one that humanity is still putting together. And if the top scientist at one of the world's largest automakers admits even he doesn't have all the pieces, then it's fair to say the rest of us don't either.
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