The Obama administration is firmly behind electric cars, and in 2011 announced a goal of a million on the road by 2015. Lacking the political consensus to make that goal realistic, it has since backed off on the 1 million thing, but remains deeply committed. Although Obama has included the incentives recommended by the Electrification Coalition in several budget proposals (how about $7,500 handed to you when you buy the car?), they haven’t a prayer of getting through Congress.
And in the U.S., the Big Three are lone wolves — fear of exposing trade secrets means they seldom work together, on green cars or much of anything. There’s no such problem in Japan, where not only is the government united in support, but Toyota, Nissan, Honda and Mitsubishi are willing to collaborate when it makes sense.
On Monday, the four Japanese giants said they’re united on a major expansion of the electric car charging network in Japan. It’s a big ramp-up, with chargers to go into all sorts of public places, including shopping malls and family restaurants, service stations and tea houses. Helping make it happen are $666 million in Japanese government subsidies for 2013 alone. According to the automakers, “Each prefecture in Japan is drawing up a vision for the use of the subsidies.” The business owners themselves won’t be heavily out of pocket, because the car companies will bear at least part of the installation and maintenance costs.
The goal is to have hybrids (such as the Toyota Prius taxi in Tokyo, above), plug-in hybrids and battery electrics reach 15 to 20 percent of new car sales by 2020. Japan already has many more 480-volt fast chargers than the U.S., a whopping 1,700, but fewer 240-volt Level II units at around 3,000. That is “generally recognized to be insufficient,” the automakers said. Under the plan, 5,000 Level IIs will be added, and 1,300 fast chargers. The automakers will work together to strategically locate the network, something they haven’t done in the past.
EVs have run into some headwinds in Japan, not least because the Fukushima disaster gave electric power utilities a bad name. The problem is worse for energy companies with nukes such as EV-friendly Tokyo Electric Power, whose plug-in Mitsubishi is seen below. Fortune also quotes a McKinsey survey to conclude that “up to a third of Japanese customers for EVs say they would not buy again. They were put off by their high price, higher electric bills, and the considerable bother of locating places to charge their cars.” The Japanese charging expansion should address at least the last point, and subsidized home chargers will help ease the other concerns.
The Japanese government is also bullish on another zero-emission technology, hydrogen fuel cells, and has subsidized their use as home power generators. Two Japanese companies, Honda and Toyota, have pledged to have fuel-cell cars on the road by 2015.
The U.S. remains the world leader not only in electric cars on the road but also in installed chargers. But there are encouraging developments in Europe, with Estonia and Holland investing in national networks. China hasn’t achieved liftoff yet, but when it does, watch out. And now Japan’s auto industry and its political leaders are moving together to put money and business clout behind a big expansion.
Here, on video, is a closer look at an EV charging station in a Japanese shopping center parking lot, where charging is free!
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