To go big on electric vehicles, Japanese automakers think super small

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TOKYO (Reuters) – As global automakers rush to put long-range electric vehicles on highways amid tighter emissions laws, Japanese rivals are taking a niche approach and turning to less runabouts expensive and pint-sized to make expensive battery technology more accessible.

At the Tokyo Motor Show which begins on Thursday, Toyota Motor, Nissan and others are expected to show off one- and two-seater electric vehicle (EV) prototypes designed for short distances with limited top speeds.

They are betting that these electric vehicles are best suited for Japan’s narrow streets, cramped parking spaces and rapidly aging society, and that vehicles will eventually spread globally as well as the elderly population increases. . But the jury is still out on whether these vehicles will work overseas.

The Japanese strategy contrasts with that of General Motors, Volkswagen VOWG_p.DE and other global players who are focusing on full-size passenger vehicles, including SUVs, to compete with the best-selling Tesla Model 3 EV sedan.

Toyota’s new ultra-compact BEV can accommodate two people and has a top speed of just 60 kilometers (37 miles) per hour and a range of 100 kilometers on a single charge. At 2.49 meters in length, it is just over half the size of the Tesla Model 3.

Japan‘s largest automaker, which pioneered “green car” technologies with the Prius gasoline hybrid over 20 years ago, has long argued that fully battery-powered electric vehicles were best suited for short. trips due to high battery costs.

He also believes low-emission hybrids and zero-emission hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, like his second-generation Mirai FCV, work better for longer distance driving.

“It’s difficult to apply the same technology to all driving needs,” said Akihiro Yanaka, head of Toyota’s EV product development and planning department, during a preview of the ultra-BEV. compact, which will be marketed in Japan at the end of 2020.

“So if we can leverage the strengths of battery-electric technology in smaller vehicles, we would like to focus on this application first. “

MINICAR OF THE FUTURE

Nissan, Japan’s No. 2 automaker, also offers its new IMk as a futuristic expression of a “kei”, or minicar.

Kei cars, which account for about a third of all Japanese passenger car sales, are low-cost, fuel-efficient vehicles marketed almost exclusively for the domestic market and normally start at around $ 10,000.

Toyota did not provide pricing details for the ultra-compact BEV.

Honda Motor is also pursuing a “smaller is better” strategy with its higher-priced Honda e, a small, four-seat battery-electric sedan launched earlier this year.

Honda plans to sell it in Europe and Japan at a starting price of around $ 32,000, which puts it in Tesla’s Model 3 lineup which has a starting price of around $ 39,000.

Japanese automakers aren’t alone in seeing smaller EVs as the short-term solution to the limited and expensive lineup of battery-powered EVs. Small electric vehicles have been on the global market for a decade, since Daimler AG’s Smart brand launched a battery-electric version of its Fortwo model.

But they have yet to become mainstream in part because of a starting price north of $ 20,000, similar to that of many gasoline family sedans, and a lack of demand in North America.

NICHE MARKET

Nissan and Toyota are currently planning their small electric vehicle models for the domestic market and are considering the possibility of marketing them overseas in the future, as emissions regulations tighten, particularly in Europe and Germany. China.

While it’s not clear whether these small cars will be able to find traction in, say, the sprawling suburbs and highways of the United States, some industry players believe these mini-EVs will help fill a need. of a wider range of mobility products as more people age around the world.

The need for small electric vehicles is already being felt in Japan, which “faces more problems involving the elderly and mobility, due to the rapidly aging population,” said Satoshi Nagashima, managing partner of Roland Berger Japan. .

The consulting company is exhibiting a compact, remote-controlled, low-speed EV at the Tokyo Motor Show. The car is intended to move passengers around the hotel and site grounds.

“Small vehicles that travel shorter distances at lower speeds are becoming a particular niche here,” Nagashima said, adding that the sector could become the next battleground for automakers and other mobility companies.

Reporting by Naomi Tajitsu; Editing by David Dolan and Himani Sarkar


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