Despite growing interest in electric vehicles amid stricter curbs on greenhouse gas emissions, globally renowned Japanese carmakers have yet to totally embrace the challenge — raising concerns they may fall behind emerging rivals.
But analysts say the world is not ready to shift to EVs, which still have hurdles to overcome, and that for this reason Japan’s cautious stance is realistic.
“I believe electric vehicles will certainly be the future in the long run. But it’s not a change that comes immediately,” said Takaki Nakanishi, CEO of Nakanishi Research Institute Co., which specializes in auto industry research. He sees recent EV hype as part of China’s political strategy, to promote its auto industry so it can compete with rivals in Japan.
“The price of (EV) batteries is still high. The cruising range is still relatively short . . . I think there is a lot to do before EVs become mainstream,” Nakanishi said, “I think it’s important not to jump onto the EV bandwagon led by Europe and China.”
Another auto industry expert, Noriyuki Kobayashi, general manager of Nomura Research Institute’s global manufacturing industry consulting department, said Japan is not lagging behind other countries in terms of EV technology. But “it seems a bit slow if Japan plans to establish a market after establishing a goal,” he said.
The current headwind against internal combustion engines gained momentum after the Volkswagen AG scandal broke in 2015, when the German automaker was found to have been cheating on carbon dioxide emissions with its diesel-powered vehicles.
Amid the backlash against diesel, France and Britain in July announced they will stop selling new gasoline- and diesel-powered cars by 2040.
Meanwhile China, whose auto industry isn’t as competitive as that of the U.S., Europe or Japan, is seen by some as having jumped on the EV bandwagon.
In September Beijing said it may outlaw sales of new gasoline and diesel cars, a move that may hasten the global shift toward battery-powered vehicles. The world’s largest automobile market also requires that carmakers producing and selling cars in China must meet a 10 percent annual sales quota for so-called new-energy vehicles — including pure EVs and plug-in hybrid vehicles (PHVs) — by 2019, and 12 percent in 2020.
So far, Japan has been reluctant to make the EV shift.
The government has set a goal of requiring, by 2030, 50 to 70 percent of new vehicles sold to be “next generation” vehicles, which includes hybrid vehicles (HVs), PHVs and clean diesel cars as well as zero emission cars including pure EVs and fuel cell vehicles (FCVs). It wants EVs and PHVs to account for 20 to 30 percent of those sold.
But views on EV development among domestic carmakers differ.
Toyota Motor Corp. hasn’t produced an all-electric model for consumers since it halted production of the Rav4 EV in 2014.
Honda Motor Co. doesn’t have an EV model in its Japan lineup, although it sells its Clarity Electric EV in the U.S. The company plans to start selling an EV model in China as soon as next year.
Perhaps the most active among Japan’s big three automakers has been Nissan Motor Co., producer of the Nissan Leaf. As of October, the Yokohama-based company has sold 290,000 units of Nissan Leaf in the global market since 2010.
Shifting from internal combustion to electric poses a risk to profits, said Kobayashi of Nomura Research.
Instead, Japanese carmakers want to keep selling HVs and PHVs, the area where they are ahead of competitors overseas, he added.
“They have spent enormous amounts of money and resources on developing HVs. So I think it’s natural that they want to let their efforts pay for that as much as possible,” he said. “I believe Japanese automakers cannot wholly embrace the current EV shift.”
The reluctance was also evident among auto parts suppliers, whose businesses have relied on close-knit, hierarchical networks of automakers and suppliers known as keiretsu.
“If all cars were replaced with EVs at this moment, our company would lose all of its jobs,” said Teruaki Nakatsuka, president and CEO of transmission maker Jatco Ltd.
Started as an automatic transmission supplier for Nissan in 1970, Jatco holds an about 50 percent global share of continuously variable transmissions (CVT), according to the company. The Shizuoka-based firm’s revenue relies totally on sales of transmissions used in autos.
But since EVs don’t require multigear transmissions to change speeds, the company may lose its bread and butter business if EVs replace conventional cars.
“We have been a unique company that only produces automatic transmissions. … But when we look at our company’s portfolio, I think it’s better to consider how we can use our strength and expand our business scope,” Nakatsuka said.
While admitting the current EV shift poses a threat to the company’s continuity, Nakatsuka said it’s unrealistic to think internal combustion engines are already things of the past.
“Ultimately, it’s all up to customers to decide whether we really want EVs or not,” he said. “I think Japan is currently taking a realistic approach by waiting and seeing what customers really need.”
While traditional carmakers and suppliers remain hesitant to ride the EV wave, some nonautomakers are trying to take advantage of the movement and venture into the auto industry.
British electric appliance maker Dyson Ltd. joined the EV race in September after the company, famous for innovative vacuum cleaners, announced it would invest £2 billion (about ¥304 billion) to produce a battery-powered vehicle and its battery by 2020, according to Bloomberg.
The phenomenon isn’t only being seen outside Japan.
Yamada Denki Co. announced in October the Gunma-based electronics retailer would team up with Kawasaki-based EV venture Fomm Corp. and produce a compact EV that can also run on water.
The startup automaker’s strength lies in its openness and speed, unconstrained by a domestic keiretsu network between carmaker and suppliers, said Hideo Tsurumaki, CEO of Fomm, one of the nation’s leading EV ventures. The company plans to launch its first compact EV in Thailand, where its assembly facility is located, in late 2018.
Unlike big automakers whose business stand atop of many parts suppliers and employees, a venture firm like Fomm can produce EVs without worrying about how its decision will affect suppliers, said Tsurumaki, who worked at Suzuki Motor Corp. and Toyota Auto Body Co. before founding his own EV startup in 2013.
“We use windshield wipers from a Spanish company. Key cylinders are from Malaysia and seat belts are from China. Door handles are from South Korea and seats are from Taiwan,” he said. “Big automakers need to overcome many hurdles before making one decision. But we can act immediately after I give the go-ahead.”
But “if big carmakers like Toyota want to produce a pure EVs, they can do so from right now,” he said.
“Toyota has already produced many HVs, whose inner structure is mostly the same as an all-electric cars. They are capable of making EVs, but have taken a strategic position of not doing so,” he said.
It was just recently that Toyota started to emphasize its readiness to make all-electric vehicles, in a move that apparently aims to sweep away its public image as slow to jump on the bandwagon.
On Monday, Toyota announced it plans stop selling all-gasoline cars by 2025 and produce 5.5 million electrified vehicles — which include hybrids and FCVs as well as ‘pure’ EVs — in 2030, including 1 million zero-emission vehicles such as EVs and FCVs. Toyota has sold about 11 million electrified vehicles since the debut of its Prius, the first mass-marketed hybrid, in 1997.
And last week, Toyota President Akio Toyoda announced the firm will strengthen its cooperation with Panasonic Corp. — the leading maker of lithium-ion batteries used for electric vehicles and the battery supplier to U.S. carmaker Tesla Inc — and work together to develop high-capacity, safer batteries for use in next-generation electrified cars.
Toyota has already announced that it aims to commercialize solid-state batteries, a next-generation battery that can offer more capacity and better safety than traditional lithium-ion batteries because they produce no flammable gas, by early 2020.
At a news conference last week, Toyoda emphasized that developing a better battery, the key component of next-generation green cars, is crucial for resource-poor Japan to survive “the once-in-a-century transformation” happening in the global car industry today.
But Toyota believes EVs are not the only solution to greener cars. In fact, the company has also invested into hydrogen-powered FCVs.
“As an automobile manufacturer, we believe offering a wide variety of electrified vehicles is a necessary and sufficient condition for us to keep producing products that fulfill customer needs. And we believe it’s essential to develop our basic technologies in all directions, including building a social infrastructure, so as to make electrified vehicles used widely by customers,” Toyota Executive Vice President Shigeki Terashi said Monday.
Toyota and 10 other companies in Japan, including Nissan and Honda as well as infrastructure operators such as hydrogen station operator Iwatani Corp. and Tokyo Gas Co., announced last week they will establish a new company next spring and build 80 hydrogen fueling stations by 2022. Japan aims to build 160 hydrogen stations by 2020 and 320 by 2025.
As the world is quickly moving toward EV development, “Japan cannot remain the only one to resist the momentum,” Kobayashi of Nomura Research said.
“Japan cannot become too conservative about what it has established already,” he said. “Otherwise, the whole nation may fall behind the ongoing changes.”