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Japanese Automakers Step Up Efforts to Introduce Electric Buses

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Isuzu Motors Ltd.’s electric bus ERGA EV with a fully low-floor design

Japanese firms has begun efforts to introduce electric buses in the country.

While the domestic market of electric buses is almost monopolized by foreign automakers, such as the leading Chinese electric vehicle manufacturer BYD Co., Isuzu Motors Ltd. has finally unveiled an electric bus this fall.

With other options expanding, such as a move to convert existing engine-powered vehicles into EVs, electric buses may become widely used in Japan.

Fully low-floor

In late November, Isuzu disclosed to the media its first mass-produced electric bus ERGA EV at its plant in the city of Fujisawa, Kanagawa Prefecture. The automaker plans to start selling the bus within the next fiscal year.

With batteries placed on the roof and underneath the floor, the vehicle has a fully low-floor layout, all the way to the rear seats. Operated with electric power, the vehicle accelerates smoothly and runs with little noise.

The challenge is its price: conventional engine vehicles are generally priced in the ¥20 million range in the instance of wide-route buses. For electric buses, however, current Chinese-produced models are priced in the ¥40 million range. The Isuzu model is expected to be even more expensive.

“We’d like to make the price competitive [against foreign-made models], in consideration to new values such as the fully low-floor,” said Takashi Oodaira, Isuzu’s managing executive officer in charge of development.

As of March this year, the number of electric buses in Japan was 252, accounting for only about 0.1 percent of the total number of buses at about 210,000.

South Korea’s Hyundai Motor Co. is expected to invigorate the Japanese market as they plans to start sales of electric buses in the country as early as later next year. At a bus exhibition in the city of Saitama in early December, the automaker unveiled the ELEC CITY TOWN, a medium-sized electric bus.

“It appears easy to drive, even on narrow roads,” said an official of a bus company affiliated with a railroad firm in the Kanto region.

According to the firm’s measurement, the model has the maximum range of 350 kilometers, which is longer than the 200-kilometer range of BYD models.

“There is no reason not to launch our product in the Japanese market in the initial stage,” said Cho Won Sang, president of the company’s Japanese subsidiary, Hyundai Mobility Japan.

Aiming to introduce 10,000 electric buses

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Nishi-Nippon Railroad Co.’s electric bus carries batteries in its rear, which was previously used as an engine room.

The limited sales of foreign-made electric buses in Japan can be attributed to concerns for after-sales service support, such as responses to malfunctions and supplying of replacement parts.

“We consulted with a Chinese manufacturer, but it was unwilling to offer specifications for a cold-weather environment. So we’re concerned about non-domestic makers,” said an official at a route bus operator in Hokkaido.

Unable to wait for domestically produced electric buses to go on sale, one bus operator started converting existing buses into EVs by installing motors and batteries. Nishi-Nippon Railroad Co. in Fukuoka city, one of Japan’s largest bus operators, has begun operating electric buses which have been converted from conventional models from its group’s car body plant. The work costs in the higher ¥20 million range, and the company is considering starting sales of converted buses to smaller bus operators in rural areas.

“We’d like to emphasize and push forward the strength of domestic vehicles,” said Masato Maeda, head of the company’s automobile business headquarters.

The Nihon Bus Association has set a goal of introducing 10,000 electric buses by 2030.

The introduction of electric buses is expected to start with route buses, which have fixed routes and therefore are easier to build recharging plants.