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Japanese automakers have showcased numerous electric vehicles at the Tokyo Motor Show to catch up with Tesla.

Wednesday, 25 October 2023 11:53 Lifestyle

Toyota, Honda, Nissan, and other Japanese automakers are taking electric vehicles seriously in an effort to catch up with global leaders like Tesla and BYD.

TOKYO - "We love electric vehicles."

Teruo Kato, head of Toyota's electric vehicle division, said this not once but twice to emphasize what he considers the message of this year's Tokyo Auto Salon.

This message is clearly resonating at the Tokyo Mobility Show, which runs until November 5th at the Tokyo Big Sight Hall, where battery-powered electric cars are the star on almost every stand.

Mazda Motor Corp. is presenting a sports car concept that is a plug-in electric vehicle equipped with its signature rotary engine. Honda Motor Co. is showcasing the Prelude EV sports car concept. Toyota Motor Corp's compact angular Lexus concept, set to be launched in 2026, is an electric vehicle powered by lithium-ion batteries.

Journalists got a preview on Wednesday ahead of the public opening on Saturday.

American automakers like General Motors Co. and Ford Motor Co. have not participated in the show for several years. Americans make up a very small portion of car sales in Japan, and they have found it difficult to gain a foothold in a market where domestic manufacturers maintain their influence.

Among the foreign manufacturers taking part are Mercedes-Benz, a perennial favorite among the Japanese, and Chinese automaker BYD.

Kato denies he repeated his words because he's concerned Toyota doesn't love electric vehicles enough.

Toyota executives acknowledge that the leading Japanese automaker is behind competitors in the development of electric vehicles, such as Tesla in the US and Chinese automaker BYD Auto. Part of this is due to Toyota's past success in hybrids, exemplified by the Prius, which has both an electric motor and a gasoline engine.

Toyota already sells a tiny two-seater called the C+pod and the bZ4X, developed in collaboration with a group of companies including Subaru, as electric offerings, but not much else. And it's eager to play catch-up.

The Lexus LF-ZC, Toyota's first serious electric car, will be a real test of how Toyota feels about a sector that still makes up a minority of the global market but is rapidly growing, given priorities like climate change.

According to the International Energy Agency, electric cars account for less than 5% of the car market in Japan. In the US, where Tesla dominates, electric cars make up just under 10% of car sales, although President Joe Biden is pushing for at least 54% of new cars sold in the US to be electric by 2030. Sold cars are electric.

Global deliveries of Tesla cars grew by 40% last year compared to the previous year, to 1.31 million electric vehicles. BYD sold more than 1.85 million electric vehicles, including plug-in hybrids.

Meanwhile, Toyota sold less than 25,000 electric vehicles worldwide last year, although 65,000 have been sold in the first eight months of this year, mostly outside Japan. Toyota plans to sell 1.5 million electric vehicles per year by 2026 and 3.5 million by 2030.

"We're looking toward an electrified future, which we hope to build together with our customers," Kato said.

Catching up isn't easy, but it's possible, said Joshua Cobb, senior automotive analyst at BMI.

"In the short term, we see Chinese electric vehicles from brands like BYD, SAIC-GM-Wuling, and Tesla continuing to gain market share, as there is currently little competition," he said.

But Cobb added, "One shouldn't underestimate brand loyalty in Japan." He said Japanese consumers may hold off on buying electric vehicles until more domestic models are available in the market.

Nissan, one of the first electric vehicle manufacturers among the Japanese, whose Leaf model went on sale in 2010, is showcasing four electric vehicle concept cars.

Among them is the Hyper Tourer minivan concept, which, according to Nissan, is equipped with advanced technologies such as autonomous driving. It runs on high-energy-density solid-state batteries.

Senior Vice President Alfonso Albaisa said Nissan is focusing on virtual reality and other achievements that allow car designers to shorten the time it takes to develop models.

"At Nissan, we are moving forward with our dramatic digital transition, like other industries such as gaming," Albaisa said.

Manufacturers also note that electric vehicle technology is changing the way cars are driven.

Electric vehicle batteries and motors typically take up less space than an internal combustion engine. This means that electric vehicles can have a lower center of gravity while offering more interior space, making them an excellent platform for sports cars, vans, pickups, and SUVs.

In Japan and elsewhere, a key issue for electric vehicles is charging time and range. While all major global automakers are working to reduce charging times and increase range on a single charge, US startup Ample has offered a different solution - battery swapping.

Instead of charging the battery in the car, a module containing the battery is removed and replaced with a fully charged battery at a specially designed service center. The exchange, performed by robots, takes just five minutes.

This approach is already being used by Uber drivers in the San Francisco area. This winter, Mitsubishi Fuso, a Daimler Group freight company, will receive Ample battery replacements in Japan as part of a partnership. Battery replacement is demonstrated at the Mitsubishi Fuso booth.

De Souza said another attraction of battery replacement is its environmental friendliness. According to him, the battery can be charged flexibly using renewable energy during times of low electricity demand.

"We've decided that, for gas, what works really well is that you stop for a few minutes," said John De Souza, President and Founder of Ample.

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