Japanese Startups Focus Attention on Ultra-compact EVs

The Yomiuri Shimbun
METAx’s prototype car, “Kurosuke”

Startup companies in Japan are increasingly turning their attention to the development of ultra-compact electric vehicles.

Some firms plan to show off single-seater prototype models at the Japan Mobility Show — formerly known as the Tokyo Motor Show — scheduled to begin on Oct. 26.

The firms hope to raise awareness of their products at the event, which is expected to draw as many as 1 million visitors, and promote ultra-compact EVs with an eye on their potential use as delivery vehicles and other purposes.

Drumming up support

In early October, a small, simply designed EV took part in a performance test at a driving school in Chigasaki, Kanagawa Prefecture. The vehicle, dubbed “Kurosuke,” sported a black chassis and a single front light.

The prototype car belonged to the Micro EV Technology Research Association, or METAx, which is among the groups planning to display products at the Japan Mobility Show.

“We’re finally on the starting line,” said Hiroyuki Takemura, 52, who played a leading role in the vehicle’s planning, which took about two years.

Takemura and other former vehicle developers at Nissan Motor Corp. have created a company to develop technology and design for EVs. METAx was established by the developers’ company in conjunction with three parts manufacturers.

Kurosuke is classified as a Class-1 motorized bicycle, or a minicar, and is smaller than a light motor vehicle. It was designed to come in just under the light motor vehicle threshold, thus allowing it to carry as much cargo as possible.

To ensure its competitiveness particularly with regard to light motor vehicles the development team threw out unessential elements wherever possible. As a result, the car is not painted, nor does it have rear windows.

After establishing the operational company, the team plans to farm out production to Tonox — a car body manufacturer in the city of Hiratsuka, Kanagawa Prefecture. The developers aim to start accepting reservations for the new vehicle in 2025.

However, the team has yet to secure large-lot customers or parts suppliers. Nevertheless, Takemura remains upbeat, saying, “We hope to meet people at the Japan Mobility Show who support our efforts.”

Lower barrier for startups

Minicars are expected to be used for short-distance deliveries — which have seen growing demand due to the spread of online commerce — and as vehicles for shopping among older people. Compared with motorbikes that are used for deliveries, minicars are more stable and can easily carry more goods and supplies.

Minicar manufacturers can enter the market without having to clear high hurdles, as minicars are not subject to “type designation,” a system used in connection with the mass-production of vehicles. Apart from major automakers, it has been traditionally difficult for firms to obtain such authorization.

Furthermore, minicars are not subject to periodic inspections, meaning owners have lower maintenance costs than those associated with light motor vehicles. Advantages such as these have prompted other startups to start developing minicars.

KG Motors Co. — founded last year in Higashi-Hiroshima, Hiroshima Prefecture — plans to exhibit an ultra-compact EV at the Japan Mobility Show.

The company’s prototype vehicle is based on an idea presented by Representative Director Kazunari Kusunoki for “cars that are more adaptable and can turn in a small space.” Kusunoki was raised in an area with many narrow streets.

The retro-styled car, inspired by a Polaroid camera, is likely to attract much attention at the show. The number of parts was reduced by making the four corners of the car similar in design.

Awareness of the car grew after the firm uploaded a video to YouTube showing the vehicle’s development process, and the car garnered the second-largest number of votes in a popularity poll conducted at the Osaka Auto Messe motor show in February.

KG Motors hopes to capitalize on exposure at the upcoming show with the aim of bringing its car to market in 2025 with a ¥1 million price tag.

Minicars must conform to strict requirements, such as having a maximum speed of 60 kph, which has slowed their development among major makers. Currently, Toyota Auto Body Co.’s Coms enjoys the largest slice of the market. To date, the company, which started selling the vehicle in 2012, has sold more than 10,000 units.

Developmental challenges

“Single-seater cars have limited uses, and it’s difficult to turn a profit on them,” said Hideo Tsurumaki, 61, who participated in the development of Coms and has founded an EV-development firm. “But if minicars draw more attention and the market expands, I’d like to produce them again.”