Competition has been heating up in the domestic market for electric vehicles and many automakers have been prioritizing the technology since Mitsubishi Motors Corp. launched an egg-shaped electric minivehicle in July.

Domestic carmakers are planning to exhibit various electric concept cars at the Tokyo Motor Show that opens to the public Oct. 24. The models may give us a clue about what will become available to consumers in the near future.

But are electric vehicles really the answer to global warming? Some critics even say that without any major technical breakthroughs, EVs will remain only a niche market.

Following are questions and answers about EVs in Japan:

What kinds of EVs can you buy in Japan?

Two major models are available or will soon hit the market.

One is the i-MiEV that MMC will start selling next April with a sticker price of ¥4.6 million, including tax. The automaker said that as of Sept. 10, it had already received 900 orders.

The other model is the Plug-in-Stella, which Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd. started to sell in July for ¥4.725 million, including tax.

No major foreign automakers sell EVs in Japan, but some already sell them overseas and have announced they will start mass production in a few years.

They include Daimler AG, which has said it will start mass production of EVs for sale in 2012.

More models are in the pipeline. Nissan Motor Co. said Aug. 2 its new EV, the Leaf, will go on sale in Japan, the United States and Europe next year, but it has not revealed the price tag. Toyota has said it will launch an EV by 2012 in the United States but has not released any details, and it has also not said whether it will go on sale in Japan.

At least eight makers sell EVs in small quantities, including the Girasole by Japan-Italian venture Auto EV Japan Co. and the Reva by Indian-U.S. venture Reva Electric Car Co., according to the quasi-governmental Next Generation Vehicle Promotion Center in Tokyo.

EVs require far fewer components than gasoline-fueled cars. This makes it easier to assemble them and allows a number of small companies to join in their production.

This is also why some big carmakers, which have delayed getting involved in the costly development of other so-called green cars such as gasoline-electric hybrids and fuel-cell vehicles, are focusing on the development of EVs.

Do EVs have corporate users here, as in Europe?

Electric power firms, including Tokyo Electric Power Co., convenience store chain Lawson Inc. and Japan Post Group use dozens of EVs to visit customers and outlets.

Delivery service operators drive open-style electric minicars created by small venture firms.

Mitsubishi Motors started leasing i-MiEVs on July 23 for corporate users, and it has reserved as many as 1,400 units. Fuji Heavy has delivered 40 to 50 to corporate customers, it said.

Who created the first electric car in Japan?

Three firms — a machinery maker named Nakajima Seisakusho, a forerunner of Kawasaki Heavy Industries Ltd. and one of the forerunners of battery maker GS Yuasa Corp. — created the first electric bus in 1930, according to GS Yuasa’s corporate history.

However, the first EV in the world had been developed in Britain some 57 years earlier.

Nakajima and the GS Yuasa forerunner built Japan’s first electric car in 1937, the vehicle promotion center said.

The number of EVs on Japanese roads briefly reached 3,299 amid the lack of gasoline after World War II. Later, however, development of gasoline-powered engines and the growing number of gas stations left EVs by the wayside, the vehicle promotion center said.

Will everyone rush to drive EVs as soon as they roll off assembly lines?

Critics say it will be a while before EVs really take off because of two major hurdles — their short range and a lack of infrastructure. For example, the i-MiEV runs for about 120 km at a speed of 40 to 60 kph if the air conditioning is not used. Nissan’s Leaf can go a bit farther.

That means EV drivers in Tokyo can only go as far as neighboring prefectures on a single charge. Longer trips are not currently possible without recharging the battery at some point along the way.

There are at present a limited number of high-speed electric chargers across the nation, mainly in Tokyo and Kanagawa Prefecture.

As of June, there were only 60 high-speed charging stations in the country, and about half of those are owned by electric power firms and are not available to general users.

Some may also be reluctant to buy EVs because of the high prices.

The i-MiEV, which sells for ¥4.6 million, is far more expensive than regular compacts that can be bought for around ¥1 million.

Among gasoline-electric hybrids, Toyota’s new Prius sells for ¥2.05 million and Honda Motor Co.’s Insight ¥1.89 million.

However, the high price for an EV may be offset by the low cost of electricity.

A single charge costs about ¥400 to ¥500., about one-tenth the price of filling up a compact with regular gasoline.

Also, the government will exempt a portion of car-related taxes on EVs and other environmentally friendly cars until 2012 and provide financial aid until next March. As a result, the i-MiEV and the Plug-in-Stella are now a little more than ¥1 million cheaper than their listed price.

How long does it take to charge the battery?

EVs usually come with a long cable that can be connected to the vehicle at one end and plugged into either a 100-volt or a 200-volt socket at the other. Charging takes 14 hours using a household 100-volt socket, but with a 200-volt socket, which can be found at such places as large factories, the time is cut to about seven hours.

A high-speed charger can have an i-MiEV juiced up in just 30 minutes.

Can EVs be charged at home or in parking lots?

For people to park their EVs at home, they may have to install an outside 200-volt socket to charge their car.

There are also high-speed chargers at some public parking lots in large shopping malls, including Aeon Lake Town in Saitama Prefecture, and Metropolitan Expressways parking areas, including Heiwajima and Daikoku.

Elsewhere, people need to be cautious about leaving EVs parked for lengthy periods because the electricity slowly drains away when they aren’t being used.

Are there any new EV business models?

To promote EVs, Kanagawa Prefecture and U.S.-based EV infrastructure developer Better Place are each taking unique steps.

Kanagawa started to display a business model EV in September. Local government officers use two of the vehicles on weekdays for business and regular people can rent them on weekends.

This way, the prefecture hopes companies will introduce the business model by cooperating with rental car operators.

Meanwhile, Better Place said in August it will partner with Tokyo taxi operator Nihon Kotsu on a pilot project for cabs using a new type of switchable battery from next January. California-based Better Place will build a battery switch station near Roppongi Hills in Minato Ward to improve infrastructure for EVs in Tokyo.

The Weekly FYI appears Tuesdays (Wednesday in some areas). Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to National News Desk

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.