Battery electric cars in Japan

BYD, China’s leading EV maker announced it will release three models for the Japanese market in 2023.

Meanwhile Toyota has only launched a single battery electric model in its domestic market (Toyota bZ4X SUV in 2022) while Nissan has launched two (Nissan Leaf in 2010, Nissan Ariya SUV in 2022). Both brands are still concentrating on gasoline-powered hybrids. The bZ4X is also offered as the Subaru Solterra, with some minor differences from the Toyota-badged model.

Germany’s VW is still holding back on its ID.3 and ID.4 models in Japan, perhaps because it can’t manufacture enough of them even for the European market. The VW group is only represented here in the battery electric market by its luxury brands Audi and Porsche.

Korea’s Hyundai launched the Ioniq 5 this spring, with the larger Ioniq 6 to follow next year.

It looks like 2023 will be an interesting year for BEVs in Japan which until now has been lagging far behind China, North America and Europe in the electric mobility transition.

On my last trip to the UK I was amazed by the number of BEVs of every brand and model I saw in London compared to Tokyo. In 2021, only 10,843 Nissan LEAF and another 8,610 imported electric cars were sold in Japan (about 60% of which were Tesla). That’s under 20,000 in total or 0.2 % of about 6.9 million new cars sold. The UK, with roughly half the population of Japan, bought 190,727 new electric cars the same year. About 1 in every 6 new cars registered in June 2022 in the UK was battery electric.

China recognized that BEVs are a strategic move. Taking the lead will allow them to leapfrog laggards like Toyota who are too wedded to their own past successes to make the necessary transition to a decarbonized future. And it’s not just about the cars: China also added more solar and wind power last year than the rest of the world combined to make it possible to charge these cars without burning fossil fuel. It has heavily invested in long distance HVDC transmission to shift renewable power over great distances while Japan’s grid still consists of separate grids in West Japan, East Japan and in Hokkaido with extremely limited interconnection capacity.

A couple of months ago Toyota upgraded its forecast for electric vehicle sales in 2030 from 2 million a year to 3.5 million a year, which is about one third of its current annual sales. That’s for almost a decade in the future! This suggests it doesn’t see a tipping point where battery electric overtakes internal combustion engines until later in the 2030s. It is hardly surprising then that during the recent G7 conference in Germany, Japan lobbied hard to remove a goal of at least 50% zero-emission vehicles for 2030 from the climate goals communique, presumably at the request of its car industry. Meanwhile 80 percent of new car sales in Norway are already battery electric.

When Toyota launched the bZ4X into the Japanese market this year, it announced a sales goal of only 5,000 units, roughly 1/10 of annual sales of the Toyota RAV4 that it most closely resembles and half of the annual volume of the 11 year old Nissan LEAF.

Furthermore, the bZ4X is not offered for sale to individual consumers who can only get it through leasing contracts. Supposedly this is “to eliminate customer concerns regarding battery performance, maintenance, and residual value.” This move paints long term performance of battery electric cars as a weak point when it isn’t (at least it isn’t with Tesla and other brands). By offering only leasing contracts, Toyota is casting shade on the technology.

At least due to the launch of the bZ4X Toyota will install DC fast chargers at its dealerships by 2025. Many Nissan and Mitsubishi dealers already have 30 kW DC chargers installed and a few have 50 kW chargers (more kW means a faster maximum charging rate) while most Toyota dealers still only offer 200 V AC charging, the most basic of all. The maximum charging rate with 200 V AC is a mere 6 kW. In countries with three phase AC, a 3 phase domestic AC charger that supports 11 kW will be offered by Toyota from the end of 2022. Until then, home charging in your garage or driveway will be limited to the lower rate.

DC charging of the bZ4X can go as fast as 150 kW, but available public DC chargers in Japan right now tend to be limited no more than 50 kW (most of them at car dealerships). For example, right now there are only 4 locations in Central Tokyo that offer 90 kW or more.

I think we will see change in the battery electric vehicle market Japan in the next few years, largely driven by foreign manufacturers introducing new models that Toyota, Nissan and other manufacturers will struggle to compete with. But they will have no choice but step up the pace of the zero-carbon transition if they don’t want to lose their existing market share here in Japan and in export markets. Otherwise Toyota may become the Nokia of the car industry.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.