Slices of Japanese business, politics and life
Niche electric car makers challenge majors
Former Subaru rally driver Yoshio Takaoka readily admits his business was a polluter and now wants to make up for his “sins” behind the wheel.
Takaoka is promoting the zero-emission “Girasole Elettrica” in Japan, one of a number of electric cars on display this week at a Tokyo expo.
Other electric vehicles, mostly small, also grabbed floor space, but none were from industry majors, who want to take electric cars from eco-concepts to the roads in the next few years and previewed some at last year’s G8 Summit in Hokkaido.
Girasole is attracting the most visitor attention, partly because it’s the only one already on sale, as the electric car showroom is still mainly about prototypes.
The Girasole, which means sunflower in Italian, retails for about $22,000 and drivers can claim a $6,600 environmental subsidy from the Japanese government.
The highway-worthy two-seater reaches speeds of 65 km per hour (41 mph) and can travel up to 120 km on a full battery, for a plug-in charge of only about $1.
Manufacturers say the cost performance of electric vehicles is almost 10 times better than ordinary vehicles.
“An increasing number of people now appear to think they cannot really depend on fossil fuel and electric cars are the way to go — not just from an environmental point of view but from an economic point of view,” Kiyoshi Ito, senior managing director of Auto EV Japan, a Tokyo-based company founded by Takaoka, told me.
Most importantly, Ito says, the vehicle emits no CO2 gas while driving.
Particularly cool looking was the Zero EV, a creation of Zero Sports, in central Japan.
The former used car dealership showed off a sleek, futuristic sports-car, attempting to shake off the image of function-driven electric cars often light on design.
“People used to think electric cars are heavy and clumsy, but we wanted to revamp that image and make our customers realise that electric cars are actually cool,” Makoto Kurimoto, spokesman for Zero Sports told me.
The big guys have their own plans, of course, including the Chevy Volt, which is the centrepiece of GM’s efforts to reinvent its product line to focus on fuel-efficient vehicles.
Japan’s top automakers, such as Toyota, are also spending great resources to build their own electric vehicles and Mitsubishi Motors is due to have such a car in production soon , yet small firms like Auto EV Japan say they still have an edge.
“The big guys cannot make a quick transfer from fossil-powered vehicles and electric vehicles because they cannot get rid of people making conventional auto parts,” said Ito, whose company employs only 10 staff.
“Besides, we can still make a profit even if we sell 100 cars a year, while they always have to mass produce. In that sense, we are ahead of the game.”
So, can the little guys carve out a niche before the big auto firms get past their many problems and start coming after them?
Photo credit: An exhibitor sits inside a Zero EV Elexceed Rs, an electic vehicle displayed at International Automotive Electronics Technology Expo in Tokyo, January 28, 2009. REUTERS/Yuriko Nakao