Carmakers step up race to put EVs onto Japanese market

The Yomiuri Shimbun

There has been a sudden rush of new models of electric vehicles rolling onto the Japanese market, with domestic producers like Toyota Motor Corp. and Honda Motor Co. joining what have up to now been the main players from Europe and the United States.

The current lineup of 19 new models represents a doubling over just two years.

The electric vehicles, however, face a number of challenges in a bid to gain widespread use, including a price difference of millions of yen above gasoline-powered cars and the need for expansion of charging stations.

In October last year, Toyota began taking orders for its UX300e, an electric version of its Lexus luxury brand. The carmaker is also working with Subaru Corp. on joint development of an electric sports utility vehicle (SUV).

Nissan Motor Co., which became the forerunner among the domestic manufacturers with the marketing of its electric vehicle Leaf, will begin sales by the end of this year of its own SUV, the Ariya, with which it expects to gain a foothold in the world market.

According to the Japan Automobile Dealers Association and other sources, electric passenger vehicles sold domestically have increased from seven models produced by six automakers in March 2019 to 19 models by 12 carmakers in April this year.

Among them, 15 models sold by eight carmakers are imports, mainly from Europe where manufacturers have to deal with strict environmental regulations.

The performance of electric vehicles has greatly improved. Depending on the model, the distance traveled on a single charge has increased to 400 kilometers, double that of 10 years ago, while “quick charging” times have been reduced to as fast as 30 minutes.

However, more than half of the 3.81 million new passenger cars sold in Japan in 2020 were gasoline-powered, while about 1.35 million, or 35%, were hybrid vehicles. Electric vehicles accounted for only about 15,000, or 0.4%.

The percentage for electric vehicles is extremely low compared with the 6.7% in Germany and 4.4% (including commercial vehicles) in China, according to statistics provided by research firm MarkLines Co.

In Japan, hybrid vehicles and minicars, which both boast high fuel efficiency, became popular from an early stage. Electric vehicles remain a niche market for users with particularly high environmental awareness.

Price remains the biggest sticking point. Mazda Motor Corp.’s MX-30 electric vehicle, for example, has a sticker price of more than ¥4.51 million, about ¥2 million more than Mazda’s similar type of mild hybrid. The cost of the batteries is estimated to comprise one-third of the price.

In Europe and the United States, governments are fueling the spread of electric vehicles by providing large subsidies. In contrast, the maximum subsidy in the case of Tokyo is just over ¥1 million.

There is also a need to accelerate construction of charging stations nationwide, as there are currently only about 8,000, compared to about 30,000 gas stations.

As gasoline-powered vehicles are facing stronger headwinds in line with global movement toward decarbonization, manufacturers are feeling a sense of crisis to adjust.

“The company that quickly creates a structure to generate profits from electrification through electric vehicles and the such will be able to survive,” Honda President Toshihiro Mibe said.