In the near future, the nation’s traffic scene may be characterized by the widespread use of ultracompact cars.

According to the government and automakers, this will mean lower carbon dioxide emissions, less congestion in the cities, greater mobility for the elderly and a renewed enthusiasm for cars among young people.

The tiny transports will come in either four- or three-wheel versions that can carry two adults. They will be smaller than the “kei” generation of minicars, which are limited to engine displacements of 660cc or less.

The government and municipalities will test-drive prototypes until around 2016 while automakers gear up to market ultracompacts to the masses.

“There are an increasing number of people who don’t really want to drive regular cars, and those in rural areas are facing the problem of declining gas stations and public transportation,” said Takeshi Matsunaga, project adviser for product planning at Toyota Auto Body Co.

As the popularity of energy conservation grows, he said, people who commute by car, especially those who travel alone, may feel the need to switch to an ultracompact electric vehicle for short trips.

In Japan, 60 percent of most automobile trips are limited to 10 km and two passengers.

At the Tokyo Motor Show two weeks ago, Toyota Auto Body displayed the T-Com ultracompact EV, which is about 2.4 meters long and 1.1 meters wide. It gets 50 km on a full charge and has a maximum speed of 50 kph.

Regular sedans are about 4.8 meters long and 1.8 meters wide.

Since ultracompacts haven’t been given a legal vehicle classification yet, they can only be driven in designated test areas and are not allowed on highways.

Yokohama, for example, in October embarked on a yearlong experiment with Nissan Motor Co. to test the Choi Mobi ultracompact EV. The city has more than 50 stations to allow drivers to rent and drop off the cars.

Masahiko Yoshizawa, who works at Nissan’s Zero Emission Planning Division, predicted ultracompacts will be a major player in car-sharing arrangements.

Such cars would be ideal to rent outside train stations so arriving passengers can have a handy set of wheels to conduct errands, business or take short trips, Yoshizawa said.

“I think it’s possible people will be driving ultracompact EVs almost as casually as they ride bicycles,” he said, noting this could help induce young people with little interest in driving to get behind the wheel.

Car ownership is costly in Japan, and that is believed to be a major reason why young people opt for public transport. In big cities like Tokyo, just the cost of acquiring one’s mandatory parking space can reach tens of thousands of yen a month. The taxes, insurance and routine biennial inspections are also prohibitive.

With car-sharing, people won’t have to worry about general operating costs.

Industry officials also said ultracompact-sharing would be useful in popular tourist areas, particularly small islands.

As the elderly population grows and more seniors find themselves living alone, ultracompacts would also provide a good means of mobility.

But for ultracompacts to take off, the government will have to designate them as safe. The experimental test drives are part of that process.

Although widespread use of ultracompacts is still believed to be years away, automakers believe the market will grow.

Toyota Motor Corp. is already looking to create a niche with its ultracompact EVs.

“Chinese makers can manufacture small cars too, so if the competition comes down simply to price, Japanese makers might not be able to win,” said Minoru Masuda, assistant manager of product planning at Toyota.

Merely offering a bare-bones ultracompact EV won’t suffice, he said, which is why Toyota designed the i-Road. Its futuristic design and unique driving features drew many looks at the Tokyo Motor Show.

Unlike rival makers of four-wheel ultracompacts, the i-Road has two wheels in front and one in the rear, giving it the appearance of a tricycle in reverse.

The i-Road’s driving experience, however, combines the features of both configurations. For instance, when turning, the two front wheels automatically help lean the vehicle into curves to avoid the risk of rolling. Its balance is computer-controlled, and based on factors that include speed and centrifugal force.

Toyota has purposely kept the three-wheeler’s width at 85 cm so its handling retains the merits of both a motorcycle and a car, Masuda said.

Toyota is planning to conduct road-tests of the i-Road next year.

While the manufacturers see high potential in ultracompacts, they also face hurdles, especially with production costs.

Since ultracompacts are smaller than kei cars, people will expect them to be cheaper. But some new kei cars sell for nearly ¥1 million.

The manufacturers have yet to determine when ultracompact EVs will be able to compete on price.

This section, appearing on the second Monday of each month, features new technologies that are still under research and development but expected to hit the market in coming years. This week’s story appears Tuesday because there was no paper Monday due to the press holiday.

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