The automotive industry must help solve the climate crisis
Gill Pratt, CEO of the Toyota Research Institute, fears hype rather than science is rushing us into a battery-only future
It says something about modern life that talking to a softly spoken, fact-based scientist whose eloquence is inversely proportional to his showiness can be described as refreshing. Yet that’s exactly how an hour with Toyota Research Institute CEO Gill Pratt feels.
He’s compelling not just for how he talks but also for the brainpower he flexes. Today his job titles at Toyota include chief scientist, executive fellow for research and CEO of the Toyota Research Institute; his past includes stints as a robotics and computing lead for the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and an associate professor in electrical engineering and computer science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
He’s also notable for being explicit about the fact that he can’t prove that he’s right; and for acknowledging that his employ allows for him to be accused of having vested interests.
However, as he explains here in his own words, he’s absolutely certain about two things: that the climate crisis is real and that us rushing into a future of only battery-electric vehicle (BEVs) isn’t in the planet’s best interests.
Why should we listen to you?
“No one has to take me seriously, of course. But what I try to do is to be as fact-based and as science-based as possible and talk about all the different sides of the issue.
“That approach is natural for me; I was a teacher for many years. What I’ve learned is that hype is the enemy. It leads people to misperceive the trajectory of what’s going to happen and leads to bad decisions getting made.
“Hype closes minds. It leads to too much investment in one approach over another; and a hype cycle leads to disappointment when what was promised doesn’t transpire, which is bad for everyone.”
Are electric cars a mistake?
“No. I accept that today, for some people, battery electric is exactly the right answer. But independent research suggests that’s not true for everyone.
“Lithium ion batteries aren’t without consequence. They’re made using rare, mined materials – in contrast, an engine is made using more common materials – and weigh a lot. The grid energy mix is also variable around the world.
“Cradle to grave, the evidence is that PHEV [plug-in hybrid] and BEV are very close – certainly close enough to suggest that picking one over the other as the ultimate solution isn’t currently always the correct answer and that PHEV more often than not currently is the better choice.
“PHEVs aren’t perfect either, but the batteries can be used to their full potential and there are no issues with range anxiety. They provide a solution that can help get people into cleaner transport, rather than force them to hold off switching as they have concerns.
“What I have a problem with is the correct solution being prescribed. 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.”
But you acknowledge the climate crisis, so surely zero-emissions should be the goal?
“Yes, it should. We have to get there – but the whole world won’t arrive there at the same time.
“Every bit of CO2 we put out is with us for hundreds of years. We’re building up a reservoir that will last for up to a thousand years and which won’t reduce until we go below net zero.
“We have to have an answer that reduces as much CO2 output as possible according to the region’s challenges, adapting as the answers change with time.
“That’s why BEVs aren’t the right answer for the whole world right now. They are for certain parts of the world but not everywhere.
“It’s right that everyone should be ambitious. But zero tailpipe emissions doesn’t mean zero emissions. What about the infrastructure? What about the power generation? What about the raw-material availability?”
Why aren’t more people listening to you?
“There’s an unfortunate tendency to believe that we can predict things that are really beyond our control. It’s very comforting to plot a slope of past events and project a dotted line into the future running the same way, but the truth is the future is uncertain.
“What we can say with certainty today is that climate change is an incredibly serious issue and we have to get to net-zero carbon by 2050. But if the science on the best ways to get there changes, we need to follow it – and the truth is that we don’t know what technologies are going to get us to the best way to rid ourselves of that CO2.
“Nobody can say with confidence what the battery supply chain will look like. Nobody can predict the geopolitical shifts of the next 30 years. Will there be another pandemic? The only way to resolve questions that you can’t answer, in my view, is to keep your options open, not narrow them down to a single choice.”
So do you think the UK’s plan to end ICE sales in 2030 is too soon?
“I’m not sure. Of course, Toyota will comply with the law. But is the proposal the best way to reduce carbon? I don’t know. Maybe in 15 and certainly in 20 years’ time, it could make sense. But in eight? I’m not so sure.
“The mistake being made now is that some people think EVs are the silver bullet. 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.
“We might build a load of cars that customers won’t buy because the charging infrastructure isn’t there, or they might not buy them because the up-front cost is too much. You can’t force people to buy something. Now, I don’t know that’s going to happen; I’m not stating it as a fact. But if you don’t let the marketplace or the science or the research answer your questions, you constrain your ability to deliver the right answers.”
Where are EVs the right answer?
“In some parts of Europe, they probably are. In Norway, the amount of green energy is very high, so the electric cars they have can run very cleanly. They’ve also heavily invested in charging infrastructure, so that issue isn’t there. They work, and that’s wonderful.
“But if you head into Eastern Europe, the equation isn’t so good. They need to get there, of course, but today the energy creation there is heavily reliant on coal and the charging infrastructure is a long way behind.
“Yes, we can demand that they change, but asking them to copy Norway just isn’t feasible; they don’t have the same natural resources. And that means there might be better ways to achieve carbon-reduction goals than just setting a date to switch to BEVs.”
You have to see that declarations of dates for a switch to evs are only driving uptake now, though, and that has to be a positive?
“You can force change in lots of ways. The question is whether you’re forcing a good change.
“The vast majority of people are faced with range anxiety when they consider an electric car, and the solution offered by car makers is to sell cars with bigger and bigger batteries. The result is bigger batteries with capacity that rarely gets used and heavier cars.
“I can talk about that from experience. My wife and I bought a Tesla Model X, because we’re good friends with a chief engineer on that car. It’s an incredible car. But my wife used it to commute 30 miles a day, which meant 90% of the battery wasn’t being used most of the time. We were just dragging all this weight, all these raw materials, around.
“We all know that we’re in an era of limited battery supply. Well, couldn’t those battery cells have been used for a better purpose in eight PHEVs like the Toyota RAV4 Prime, where the battery capacity would have contributed to much more total emissions savings on almost every journey?”
Some would say your views and your employer make you an enemy of solving the climate crisis. What would you say to that?
“In a hyped environment, people often pick on one company for not doing ‘the right thing’. They become the enemy, even though they’re just out there experimenting. They may win, they may lose, but you can be sure their feet will be held to the fire.
“I believe it’s much more effective to allow the marketplace and the research and development labs to figure out and optimise the answer. And it’s also much more respectful to the customers to give every single one of them a way that they can contribute the most that they can, given the circumstances that they’re in.
“They might live in an apartment; they might have to drive long distances in an area with no chargers. There are many reasons why BEVs can’t be the only answer. There’s no single answer for everyone. I see diversity of options as a strength, rather than a weakness.
“On climate change, my view is that we would be in a better place if we kept in focus that CO2 is the enemy, not a particular drivetrain type.”
What do you see as the drawbacks of batteries?
“Batteries are essentially a trade-off – between charging speed and durability, for instance, and between capacity and price. And on price, we’ve hit an issue: it has actually started to go up a bit, because some of the things that are going on in the world.
“Then there’s the issue of the availability of raw materials, the supply chain that’s required to support the manufacture and the environmental impact of mining. Recycling can answer some of that, but do we have the answers to do that in a responsible way now? I’m not certain that we do. And then there’s the question of how we lower the amount of CO2 emitted in battery production. The list goes on.
“To be clear, these problems are surmountable. 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.”
Where does hydrogen fit in?
“Fuel cells are an incredibly attractive means of fuelling vehicles for the future. They don’t require the scale of mining that a battery requires and they can be much closer to true zero-emissions vehicles than a BEV. But it’s going to be a long journey.
“The industry needs to move to carbon-neutral hydrogen production, and in automotive, we have to recognise that there are other areas that need to decarbonise using hydrogen also – fertilisers, feedstock, petrochemicals, cement and steel making, for instance.
“There’s also the issue of distribution. The network isn’t there yet, which is another reason why it might be best to focus efforts on heavy transport and buses, which drive fixed routes and have designated hubs where they start and stop.
“That doesn’t mean that hydrogen-powered passenger cars are a bad thing to do. In fact, we need them to get the scale of production to bring costs down. Also, we learned so much as a result of building both generation one and generation two of the Mirai, and the technology remains valid in whatever vehicle it is applied to.
“We’re just learning where the immediate sweet spot for its use is. And for the intermediate future, we think it will have the biggest impact in heavy-duty applications. We say that because we’ve learned from what we’ve done so far – and I believe it’s okay to learn, even if you don’t alight on the right answer the first time.”
For large parts of the world, it feels like the path is already set and your words are unlikely to change much. How does that make you feel?
“You know, what we all want is for the earth to be clean and green and for climate change to stop being an issue. And we know how hard it is to get there.
“Predicting the right calls across that complex journey is hard – almost impossible. That’s why I argue passionately for keeping options open and exploring every path, not just a singular one.
“I believe strongly that most people want to live good lives. The idea of confirmation bias – where people believe each other just because a frenzy has whipped up around a certain point of view – has been around since we lived in caves. But it has got worse – unbelievably so – and we have to get a handle on it.
“My hope is that at least some of the stuff that I say helps people on all sides to say ‘hey, you know, I guess that does make sense’. We need to temper some of the hype.
“Toyota has incredibly ambitious targets for BEVs around the world – around one third of our production by 2030. But we believe other drivetrains will also be needed as well for some time, and the best answer to reduce net CO2 emissions is to give each customer, regardless of circumstance, a way for them to most contribute to CO2 reduction. In other words, we believe that diverse circumstances call for diverse solutions.”