Japan’s Rising Sun

Green cars that are widely available, reasonably priced and profitable to build? A Tokyo dealership is where to find them. To meet the demand for clean‐air vehicles, Japanese car companies across the board are accelerating production of their fully electric concepts. The goal: electric vehicles available to the public by 2010, just over a year away.

Over the past few years, the increase of consumption in the emerging economies of China and India, combined with higher extraction costs, have contributed to skyrocketing prices of fossil fuels in the US and abroad. There are a few diverging opinions about the concept of “peak oil,” but everyone agrees that oil production will decrease steadily over time. Even taking into account the recent drop in crude oil prices, the cost of fuel has grown more than 560% over the past ten years, which has left consumers itching to find a better, budget‐friendly alternative to current transportation. Clearly, every car company wants to be the first to provide a solution. The race to an ideal state of energy efficiency has begun, and at the moment, the contenders at the forefront are all based in Japan.

The idea of the fully electric vehicle, or EV, is not a new one in Japan. In fact, Keio University has been experimenting with electric technology for several years. The university’s work culminated in the development of Eliica, a fully electric concept car powered by a long‐lasting battery, which can reach speeds up to 240 mph. The Eliica was introduced at the Tokyo Motor Show in 2005 as the first “high performance” fully electric vehicle. At the time, the Eliica team saw their work as a step towards the creation of a commercial line of similar vehicles.

Mitsubishi is clearly one of the major players in the push for electric vehicles. The company is working on completing their “iMiEV,” a fully electric model reminiscent of a Smart Car, on track for the projected launch date of 2010. Initially, the release will be limited to the Japanese market, but Mitsubishi has plans to sell the car in the US and Europe as well. The price for this vehicle, which runs 93 miles per charge and reaches a top speed of 90 mph, will be equivalent to roughly 19,000 USD. The technology and lithium ion batteries used to power the car will be supplied by Lithium Energy Japan, a joint venture set up by Mitsubishi itself.

Nissan, also at the forefront of the race to spearhead the EV market, plans for fleet sales of its car in the US and Japan to commence in 2010, with worldwide marketing beginning in 2012. “The first production vehicles will be for regional areas like California,” Nissan’s Manager of Advanced Vehicle Engineering Masahiko Tabe explained. “We will later expand the EV all over the world.” This tall, boxy four‐seat vehicle, modeled on the gasoline‐powered Nissan Cube currently for sale in Japan, will have a daily range of 100 miles, a top speed of 75 mph and a recharge time of just 8 hours. Automotive Energy Supply Corp, a joint venture set up by Subaru, Nissan and electronics mogul NEC Corporation, will provide the battery pack to power the car. Nissan officials have high aspirations for the car’s success, hoping that its release will bring them “zero emissions vehicle leadership.”

The automotive designers of Subaru share a similar vision. Subaru has scheduled the release of Stella, a four‐seat lithium‐ion battery‐ powered electric for 2009. This vehicle, traveling only 50 miles on an 8‐hour charge, is much less heavy duty than its rival counterparts and caters most directly to the needs of city commuters. However, Subaru currently has no plans to market the car outside Japan. The batteries for this EV will also be provided by Automotive Energy Supply Corp.

Lastly, Toyota is also preparing for the release of its own version of an electric vehicle. The ultra‐compact E‐Com which has been on the drawing board since 1999, will seat only 2 passengers and feature a small gasoline engine to recharge the battery. According to Toyota President Katsuaki Watanabe, the car will be adequate for limited distance travel only.

With so many Japanese companies producing electric vehicles, it is easy to see that anyone who demands an energy‐efficient car worldwide will look to Japan. But why is Japan, of all places, the birthplace of this new market?

First of all, strong economic motives will encourage consumers to consider the purchase of an EV. In a country where gasoline pump prices average 150% higher than in the US, a $19,000 MiEV will be in high demand.

In addition, Japanese companies are known to have a strict reverence for customer satisfaction. In recent years, this convention of serving the customer in the best possible way has become closely associated with “having a developed sense of social responsibility and valuing environmentally friendly practices.”  For instance, the Daily Yomiuri reported in July that Toyota was publically funding reforestation endeavors in the Philippines to augment its image as a “green” business.

Another important factor that has contributed to Japan’s primary role in the budding EV industry is the availability of the complex technology required to efficiently manufacture lithium‐ion batteries for automo;ve use. This technology, which was largely referred to as “untested” and “unproven” as recently as five years ago, was assumed to be expensive and impractical. Today, however, each major Japanese car company has its own in‐house produc;on of EV batteries, with the exception of Subaru and Nissan, which share the same technology.

Lastly, the Japanese people and market have a profound willingness to accept the electric car into their lifestyles. With the knowledge that fully electric cars will be launched in Japan as early as 2009, Japanese supermarket chain Aeon Co. is preparing to install car‐charging ports at prime loca;ons in its shopping malls. The ports Aeon plans to set up will be powerful enough to charge EVs in just an hour, a fraction of the time employed using a household socket.

Together, high fuel prices, Japan’s cultural mores, the availability of advanced technology and the enthusiasm for a more environmentally conscious lifestyle have created the perfect situation for the rise of the EV market. This constitutes a positive step for Japan and the world as a whole, but are EVs really the ideal answer to pollution that environmental advocates play them up to be?

First of all, if a large fraction of the cars that used to run on gasoline start running on electric power, power systems might not be able to cope with the addi;onal demand for energy, especially if the switch happens too quickly, and the capacity margin for electricity genera;on might disappear.

Secondly, electric cars are only as green as the kind of generating capacity used to charge them up. If the power does not come from wind or nuclear sources and instead comes from oil or coal, then EVs might be even bigger pollutants than gasoline cars. So if electric cars do result in increased demand on power grids, governments and power companies will need to focus on creating low carbon generating capacity in order for these cars to be a blessing rather than a curse.

The world will have to wait a few years before the true effects of the EV can be fully observed. What is clear today, however, is that the electric car’s debut into the global market is as much a question as an answer.