David Hermance, Toyota’s executive engineer for advanced technology vehicles, died Saturday, Nov. 25, 2006, when the airplane he was piloting crashed into the Pacific Ocean. Hermance, 59, was Toyota’s top American executive for alternative-fuel vehicles and emissions technologies in North America. He was also an avid pilot who enjoyed aerobatics competition. According to eyewitness and police reports, Hermance’s plane was performing a series of loops in airspace over the ocean near San Pedro, Calif., reserved for aerobatic stunts. Witnesses said the engine revved hard during a descent but the plane did not pull up and hit the water.
Hermance was widely regarded as Toyota’s hybrid guru in North America. He was responsible for advanced technology vehicle communication for the North American market, and emission regulatory activities in California. Hermance joined Toyota in 1991; from 1985 to 1991 he served as Department Head for Durability Test Development at General Motors. He joined G.M. in 1965, serving in a variety of roles in the Vehicle Emissions Laboratory from 1971-1985. He earned a Bachelor of Science degree in engineering from the General Motors Institute in Flint, Michigan.
HybridCars.com editor Bradley Berman interviewed Hermance in 2004.
BB: In almost 40 years in the auto industry, what roles have you played at GM and then at Toyota?
Hermance: While I was in college, I did coop studies at Allison, which became Detroit Diesel Allison—mostly on the aerospace side of the house. Aerospace was in tough shape in ‘71, so I transferred to the Milford Proving Grounds. I worked at the Milford Proving Grounds from ‘71 to ‘91, about 15 years of it in the emissions business. I spent five years in the department that designed durability tests based on customer use.
For those not familiar with Milford Proving Grounds, what is it?
Hermance: The proving grounds are a 4,000-acre facility, essentially GM’s test tracks in Lower Michigan. It’s between Lansing and Detroit, Flint and Ann Arbor—in the middle of rolling hills in rural Michigan. They have over 150 miles of test track in there. It’s where all the central corporate testing is done for GM. Their certification emissions labs are there. Their safety test facility is there. All their road test activities are there. They also had a facility in Arizona, but Milford was bigger.
What did you learn during that time about emissions and durability?
Hermance: I have a fairly long background from an emissions compliance and testing standpoint. I designed and evaluated a bunch of emission tests, resulting from rulemaking by the EPA, and to a lesser extent the California Air Resources Board. Being in Michigan, it was mostly about the federal government regulations. I can run any emission test that ever was or ever will be—both from a hardware standpoint, and from the calculations that back them up and the science that backs that up.
I’ve heard you referred to informally as Toyota’s hybrid czar. What is your current title and role?
Hermance: My current title at Toyota is Executive Engineer for Environmental Engineering, so I still have an environmental bent. The PR folks have recently started calling me hybrid guru. I’m not sure quite what that means.
What do you think it means? What are they looking to you for?
Hermance: I am the native English speaker who presents hybrid technologies so folks can better understand it. The father of Toyota’s hybrid technology is a fellow in Japan by the name of Dr. Yaegashi. I’m kind of his stepson, if you will. There have been other phrasings, but I’m the American face of Toyota’s hybrid technology.
How do you interact with Dr. Yaegashi? Do you speak Japanese or does he speak English?
Hermance: He speaks some English, and a lot of his staff speaks English. I don’t speak much Japanese—a little bit. Most of the engineering data is in charts and graphs, and those translate fairly easily. One of his key staff members is a fellow by the name of Shinichi Abe. When I first joined Toyota in ‘91, he had just been sent to the U.S. on a rotation, so he and I were new kids in this organization together—he with prior experience with Toyota Motor Corporation in Japan, and me with prior GM experience. We worked very closely together for three years. He’s pretty well up the ladder in the development of hybrid systems in Japan, so he’s provided a great deal of my education. He speaks excellent English.
What do you think has been the secret to Dr. Yaegashi’s success?
Hermance: He’s had years of emission-systems development prior to his hybrid exposure. He was one of the fathers of a bunch of different development programs at Toyota. He’s been doing advanced emissions work since the early ‘70s, and has done it well. He developed a lot of the systems that Toyota has used over time. He was given this challenge to do something new for the 21st century—and so here we are.
What was your first involvement with hybrid cars at Toyota?
Hermance: In the summer of ’97, we did a technology seminar for regulators and the press at Toyota’s Arizona proving grounds. Prior to that, I had gone to Japan and had spent some time with Shinichi Abe, and gotten the background. Toyota’s Japanese team brought prototype vehicles and a bunch of technicians to the Arizona proving ground. That was the first time I got to touch the car. I wasn’t directly involved in the creation or engineering of the first Prius.
Do you remember when you heard that it was even in the works, and what your reaction was?
Hermance: It would have been very late ‘96, early ‘97. It was such a different concept. Initially, it was presented as a car that would provide this [very high] level of fuel economy. I said, yeah, sure, because in general, nobody knew how to do that with any conventional technology vehicle. Now, I’ve seen the growth of the technology through three iterations of the Prius. With each generation, it gets better fuel economy. It gets quicker, and now it’s slightly bigger. So it’s bigger, faster, and has better fuel economy—all at the same time. With conventional technology, you just can’t do all three competing things at the same time.
Could you ever envision a Toyota car running 70, 80, or 90 miles per gallon? And if that was the goal, could it be achieved?
Hermance: It’s unlikely that you can get thermodynamically to 80 or 90 miles to the gallon with gasoline in current vehicles. You might be able to do it with diesel and hybridization. But you’d probably wind up doing it in a much lighter vehicle. Right now the U.S. market will not embrace it. Consumers won’t go for fuel economy, and they won’t accept any compromise of today’s performance levels. In fact, they want more performance with each new model. In some markets outside the U.S., perhaps. Toyota is market-driven, in all the markets it sells in, and the U.S. market is clearly saying, "We don’t give a damn about fuel economy," with some low volume exceptions. We’re still half the price of Japan or Europe on gas price. It’s going to take much higher prices for a long time to drive real change in customer behavior.
Is there a difference between the Americans and the Japanese in the will to put hybrids out there?
Hermance: I’m not so sure if it’s a difference in will. It’s a difference in the corporate analysis of what’s going to be profitable and what’s going to be good for the business. If a manufacturer sees a business opportunity, they’ll be there, one way or another. Some of the manufacturers aren’t going there yet—because of the amount of money they’d have to invest, and initial evaluations that say, "We’re not convinced yet that this is a great way to go." Some of us are. Honda, Toyota, and Ford are pretty well deep in the [hybrid] business now. And it’ll be interesting to see if we made a bad decision—which I don’t think is the case, but it’s possible—or whether the other guys are going to be playing catch-up big time. Or you can do it like Nissan did, and hedge your bet, where you say, "We’re not sure this is core, but we see the need, so we’ll buy the technology."
Which leads us to J.D. Power saying that hybrids will grow from the current half-percent of the new car market to 4 or 5 percent in the next few years. Do you agree?
Hermance: Could go there. Could go more than that, depending on how many manufacturers offer product on how many different models. That will drive the demand. Right now, at 47,000 units, Prius is about 10% of the mid-size cars Toyota sells. If you add Camry and Prius, we’re close to 500,000 units total. 10% of those are hybrids. If the Lexus RX and the Highlander come out, and we sell them at 10% of that category, then who knows? You could conceivably get to 10% penetration of the whole market, but only if every manufacturer offered hybrid as an option on every high-volume platform. That’s not going to happen in four years. It could happen in 10. It could be that, if demand is really big, and everybody realizes that it’s big, you could blow through 10% quickly on a particular model or a segment.
Is your involvement with the Prius an environmental mission?
Hermance: It is for me, personally, but I’m not sure it is for the mainstream marketing folks. I’m convinced that global warming is real, and that if we’re not principally responsible, we’re at least contributing to that. I’d like to leave the planet a little better than I found it. It’s going to be hard work to do that. By the same token, I recognize the business realities. Unless there’s a market force that requires it—and right now there isn’t because right now the American public, across the entire sampling, doesn’t care about fuel economy, even at two dollars a gallon—it’s not on their radar for consideration when they purchase a new vehicle. Interestingly enough, it is on their radar after they buy the vehicle and start complaining about the fuel economy. It hasn’t made it into the purchase decision consideration yet. It may, at some point in time, and Toyota will be well positioned when it does. You have to go in small steps until the market forces are ready to move you in that direction.