Competitive Spirit -- Bob Wimmer pauses for a photo while taking in the action recently at Richmond International Raceway in Virginia, not far from where he works out of Toyota's Washington, D.C., office.
Bob Wimmer proudly describes himself as a “third-generation car nut.” His grandfather drove a Model A across the country in the 1940s. His father owned a Jaguar XK120 and a ‘65 Ford Mustang, among other performance cars, in the 1950s and 1960s.
And now, in 2015, the apple of his
eye is…the Toyota Mirai.
Wimmer’s title is a mouthful: director of the Energy & Environmental Research Group, Technical & Regulatory Affairs for Toyota Motor North America (TMA). But his primary role recently in Toyota’s Washington, D.C., office is straightforward: promote the company’s hydrogen fuel cell technology.
“I’ve always wanted to work in the car business. I just didn’t want to live in Detroit,” says Wimmer, “It took a while. But thanks to Toyota, I got here.”
Looking back, it all makes sense. Wimmer grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, working on cars and hanging around racetracks. He earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering at California State Polytechnic University in San Luis Obispo and followed that with a Masters in systems management from the University of Southern California.
His first job was with the Santa Barbara Research Center that, indirectly, was owned by General Motors. Then he moved east to manage the Georgetown University’s program developing fuel cell hybrid transit buses. Twelve years later, as that effort began to wind down, Wimmer began looking for a new challenge. He found it in 2003, when the opportunity at Toyota appeared.
High Level Liaison -- Wimmer introduces the Mirai and its hydrogen fuel cell system to Rhode Island Gov. Gina Marie Raimondo.
The Minutiae of Mirai
Initially, Wimmer was asked to manage a research project with Stanford University, drawing on his experiences in academia. Though he still has a hand in Toyota’s research collaborations with universities, these days his primary focus is assessing how changes in energy, policy, regulation and environmental technology will affect the automotive industry. As such, he’s immersed in the minutiae of petroleum and alternative fuels, advanced vehicle technologies and power generation. That includes the Mirai, Toyota’s first production hydrogen fuel cell vehicle that will go on sale in California in October.
So, in Wimmer’s expert opinion, is this technology ready for prime time?
“I have little concern about the car,” he says. “It’s a Toyota product, so you know it’s going to be right the first time out. We’ve created a very strong and attractive package for the consumer. Through extensive testing we’ve proven the fuel cell is reliable. And we’ve managed to cut costs dramatically. If there’s any uncertainty, it’s about having the infrastructure in place to meet the consumers’ needs.”
“Infrastructure” is shorthand for a network of service stations where Mirai owners can fill up their cars’ tanks with compressed hydrogen every 300 miles or so. It’s the classic chicken-and-egg scenario. People won’t buy the car unless they can conveniently refuel it. Yet service stations won’t install the specialized pumps unless there are customers who need hydrogen.
To analyze the financial ramifications of this conundrum, Wimmer has enlisted the specialized expertise of a research team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to help Toyota, and the automotive industry in general, get over this hump.
“The key question is: ‘Who benefits the most from having these stations?’” says Wimmer. “In the early going, it’s clearly the auto companies, who need to sell the vehicles, and governments, who require them to meet their clean-air goals. So it makes sense that they are the first investors. But eventually, with enough cars and stations, there is a crossover point where it makes sense for regular investors, who are only concerned about the return on their dollars, to step in. Where is that point? Is it 100 stations and 10,000 cars? That’s the kind of research we’re doing with MIT.”
To get the infrastructure ball rolling on the East Coast, Wimmer is coordinating TMA’s relationship with TMS, TTC and Air Liquide to establish 12 hydrogen refueling stations in New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island. This effort mirrors Toyota’s partnership with FirstElement that put into place 19 stations in California.
“The ultimate goal is to create a hydrogen corridor from D.C. to Boston, similar to what’s happening in California,” says Wimmer. “We have a strong team in California working on this issue. The relationship between Toyota and Air Liquide grew out of that.”
Candid Camera -- This shot, of Wimmer with Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, was snapped with an in-vehicle video camera.
Working the PR Circuit
Through it all, Wimmer has become something of an expert on the automotive industry’s hydrogen future. His colleagues in public relations have taken notice, booking him for interviews with various news outlets. Case in point: a stint on the Weather Channel this past Earth Day promoting alternative fuels. Here’s a video clip of his appearance on the CBS television affiliate in Washington on the same day. [make link: http://www.wusa9.com/story/news/2015/04/21/toyota-mirai-runs-on-hydrogen-gas-emits-water/26106865/]
Wimmer has also become one of Toyota’s key fuel cell liaisons with public officials, providing the governors of Maryland, Virginia and Rhode Island with the opportunity for hands-on test drives.
“I’ve also spent time at the state houses talking to key representatives about the technology and educating them on what Toyota is doing to bring it to market,” says Wimmer. “The goal is to build their support to eliminate regulatory roadblocks for the technology. For example, currently, there are restrictions on vehicles carrying hydrogen in the tunnels in Boston and between Manhattan and New Jersey. And in New Jersey, vehicles carrying gaseous liquids are required to have a placard on their side. We’d rather not have to do that.
“And we’re working to reinstate the $8,000 federal tax credit for people who buy a fuel cell vehicle. It expired at the end of 2014. But fuel cell vehicles are just now coming to market.” “Our key argument is that government tax policy should create a level playing field for all Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) technologies. “Currently it is tipped in favor of plug-in vehicles that still enjoy a $7,500 federal tax incentive.”
To put it mildly, Wimmer has a very full plate professionally. As he sees it, the prospects for hydrogen as a mainstream automotive fuel should come into much sharper focus by 2020, after multiple manufacturers bring vehicles to market and the refueling infrastructure starts to take hold.
The Need for Speed -- Now that his two sons are in their teens, Wimmer has rekindled one of his passions: kart racing. This moment was captured during Daytona (Fla.) Kart Week in 2013.
The Next Generation
Through it all, Wimmer still finds time to rekindle his passion for cars that started him down this path so many years ago. After a bit of a hiatus to help his wife Wendy raise their two sons, Matt and Tony, he’s back racing go-karts.
Meanwhile, it appears that 18-year-old Tony will extend the family’s love of cars to a fourth generation.
“He’s turning into a far better auto restorer than I’ll ever be,” says Wimmer. “He completely transformed a 1972 Karmann Ghia that was a total rust bucket. His grandfather and great grandfather would be proud.”
And if Tony ever converts that classic VW to run on hydrogen, his father will be justifiably proud, too.
By Dan Miller
For more on the Mirai and its U.S. retail launch in October, be sure to check out these related stories:
An overview of Mirai's unique marketing approach
A Q&A with a pioneer Mirai dealer
A glimpse at how the Mirai is being manufactured