Power, Style, and (Cough) Smog

Back to Contents of Issue: January 2002

What does the smog hanging over Los Angeles have to do with drag races along the coast of Sagami Bay? And why is a strange man knocking on the door asking to use your electric outlet? It's the grassroots car revolution, and it's bearing down on Japan's carmakers.

by Bruce Rutledge

THE 35th TOKYO MOTOR Show, held in November in Makuhari, Chiba Prefecture, was hailed as a success by just about everybody involved. And who could argue? Sure, the two-week show drew 8 percent fewer people than the last show in 1999, but still 1,276,900 people crammed into Makuhari Messe to glimpse the 709 new automobiles on display, and most of them left a few hours later with a couple of kilograms of corporate literature in tow.

During the show, the exhibition hall pulsated with deep bass rhythms as models posed for photographers next to the latest Nissans, Hondas, and Toyotas. The new cars oozed style and playfulness, perhaps epitomized by the Pod, a car developed by Sony and Toyota Motor, which Toyota's literature describes thus: "The Pod is designed to be a partner that shares your moods and grows with you like a friend or part of your family ... For smooth, safe driving, it responds with a clapping hands image. Reckless driving results in a surprised or fearful expression."

Cars will be our friends in the future, the automakers tell us, and they'll also double as our living rooms. Nissan Motor's Kino is a minivan that gives "passengers the feeling of spending time in their living rooms with their families," according to the company. Then there is the Unibox from Honda Motor, which is also said to be "like a living room," or a "cafe a listening room," even though it looks more like a family fortress on wheels. The displays at the Tokyo Motor Show beg the question: Is this what drivers really want? "Living rooms" hurtling down the Tohoku Expressway at 120 kilometers per hour? Icons chiding us when we speed and clapping when we keep the car in between the white lines? Before Toyota and Sony began their work on the Pod, had any driver ever said, "I wish my car were more like me"?

11 days after the Tokyo Motor Show, in the beach town of Oiso in Kanagawa Prefecture, a potentially more important show took place. There were no models at the Japan EV Festival 2001, and only a few hundred people showed up, but there was a grease-monkey love of cars in the air. The festival featured electric cars, hybrid cars that use both gas engines and electric motors, and fuel cell-powered cars still in the research phase. Engineers and teams from Japanese universities took part in a series of electric car races in the parking lot of a drive-in movie theater. But the races were strangely quiet because of the lack of noisy combustible engines. Only the screech of tires and the rock and roll on the sound system sounded familiar.

There was also a booth for the zero-emission vehicle Kaz, an eight-wheeled, 2,980-kilogram, 6.7-meter long monster of a car that can do the quarter mile in 14.5 seconds (comparable to the Porsche Boxster), has a top speed of 311 km per hour, and seats eight adults comfortably. And it does this all on a 590-horsepower electric engine. Kaz, developed by professor Hiroshi Shimizu of Keio University's faculty of environmental information and built by IDEA in Turin, Italy, has been the darling of European car shows this year, and its booth (the actual car is in Europe) at the Japan EV Festival drew a steady stream of young engineers who watched the video of the limousine taking tight turns and hitting high speeds on straightaways.

After all -- hand clapping and surprised or fearful expressions aside -- Japanese automotive engineers are serving drivers best when they forge breakthrough technologies that reduce car emissions; in fact, one look at the array of low-fuel cars on sale in Japan (see table, page 27) indicates that they are the world leaders in this field. To be fair, the leading Japanese carmakers did have their alternative-fuel cars on display at the Tokyo Motor Show, but only Daihatsu Motor had its low-emissions vehicles front and center. One reason may be that though demand for hybrid cars is high, none of the models on the market now are said to be making money, with the exception of Toyota's Estima, a van that holds seven to eight passengers. Electric cars face a similar dilemma because batteries are expensive and don't have enough range to make long trips.

"We face three problems: high cost, long recharging times, and short driving distances," says Masami Ogura, a chief engineer with Honda who developed the Honda EV, an electric car (the updated Honda EV Plus is now on sale in Japan). "To recharge from empty to full, for example, can take eight hours on an electric vehicle." With high costs, and with fuel cell technology still a decade away from large-scale commercial viability, as many engineers say, carmakers say they are doing all they can to produce more fuel-efficient vehicles. In fact, they liberally use phrases like "environmentally friendly" in their public relations literature. But the fact remains that as much as 70 percent of the nitrogen oxide emissions that cause air pollution in Tokyo comes from cars.

However, a combination of strong legislation and grassroots campaigns are helping to keep the fire under the carmakers' feet. One important piece of legislation that has Japanese car executives pushing their engineers to develop new technology comes from across the Pacific.

For more than a decade, California has had in place a zero-emission law that is due to be enforced in 2003. It calls for 10 percent of the cars that are sold in the state to be zero-emission or partial zero-emission vehicles. The law has been spurred by the fact that "more than 95 percent of Californians live in areas that fail to meet federal or state air quality standards," according to the Air Resources Board of the California Environmental Protection Agency, and "roughly 50 percent of smog-forming pollutants still come from gasoline- or diesel-powered vehicles."

The board says that the legislation has already been a success even before it has been put into effect. "The major automakers have already put nearly 2,500 battery-powered (zero-emission) vehicles onto California roads," the board said in a November 2001 statement. "Consumers quickly bought these highly functional vehicles and called for more. The regulation also spurred advances in natural gas and other alternative-fuel vehicles, super-clean gasoline vehicles, fuel-efficient hybrids ... and fuel cell vehicles powered by electricity created from pollution-free hydrogen."

But as recently as early 2001, the world's 13 biggest carmakers were hiring lobbyists to soften the law. The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which includes Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Mazda, and Mitsubishi Motors, fought a high-priced battle to weaken the law but lost. Now Nissan, Toyota, Honda, General Motors, Ford, and DaimlerChrysler have to produce close to 5,000 zero-emission vehicles by 2003 and offer them to California drivers.

The alliance says the law will create a "jalopy effect" by raising the price of new cars and forcing California drivers to keep older cars on the road. Josephine Cooper, president of the alliance, was quoted as saying, "Electric cars with broad consumer appeal are an idea that has come and gone."

But thanks to California's legislation, more electric cars will soon be zooming up and down the state's highways, and many of those cars are likely to be Japanese. Ogura and other Honda engineers are working overtime in Japan to make sure the company meets the requirements of the California law. "Our president (Hiroyuki Yoshino) says we have to develop fuel cell-powered cars by 2003," Ogura says. Toyota also plans to have 30 to 50 models of its FCHV-4 pure-hydrogen fuel cell vehicles to market by 2003. But if fuel cells don't pan out, Nissan, Toyota, and Honda will have to sell electric cars in California, since hybrids don't meet the zero-emission standard.

While the effects of the California law are wide-reaching, grassroots efforts to get the carmakers to provide more choice when it comes to alternative-fuel cars are also showing results. There were no clean-air protests at the Tokyo Motor Show, but there were in Detroit, and in an increasingly shrinking world, that means Japanese carmakers have to take notice.

At home, the Japan Electric Vehicle Club (JEVC), which sponsored the Japan EV Festival 2001, has taken an unusual approach to getting carmakers to provide more choices. It took a class-A Mercedes Benz, took out the gas-powered engine and replaced it with an electric motor, then sent two young men on a six-month tour of Japan, dubbed the "2001 Trip of Recharges," to raise awareness of electric cars. When fuel ran low, they had to knock on doors and ask if they could borrow an electric outlet to recharge the cars.

"Some people said, 'You have no business asking to borrow my outlet,' and we respected that," says Takenobu Usui, one of the two drivers on the tour. "But we made it all the way around Japan. That was a big thing. It showed how cooperative most people were."

In all, the drivers recharged their car 619 times on a trip that took them to the southern tip of Kyushu and the northern tip of Hokkaido. After the group was featured on Japanese television early in the trip, the JEVC Web site (www.jevc.gr.jp) was flooded with messages from others who wanted to be "supporters." The club eventually gathered 1,169 supporters willing to recharge electric cars in their neighborhood.

Why go to all this bother? JEVC managing director Tadashi Tateuchi (see page 36, September 2001) says carmakers often argue that electric cars won't proliferate because there isn't any infrastructure to support them. There are no electricity-dispensing stations for electric cars to recharge, the argument goes, and building them would be too expensive. Tateuchi's group aims to show consumers just how easy it is to recharge electric cars.

Usui says, "We don't need big eco-stations. Just a vending machine that dispenses electricity is enough."

Usui and his fellow driver, Tsukuba University student Hiroshi Furusawa, traveled more than 12,000 km and paid electricity charges of just more than JPY52,000, for a JPY4.2 per km average.

"We can't make all the (electric) cars ourselves," Tateuchi says. "We can make a few, but we can't make electric cars on a mass scale. We've got to lean on the car companies."

And they have, in a friendly way, by raising awareness of the choices consumers can have and by getting young engineers involved in alternative-fuel projects early in their careers.

The 2001 Trip of Recharges was done in that spirit of fun. "When our drivers approached some of these places to fill up, the people were standing outside waiting for them," Tateuchi says. "Children in elementary school and kindergarten were especially excited to see the car. A lot of the people asking us to stop were parents who wanted to show their kids an electric vehicle. And we got a lot of support from those concerned about our environment."

Tateuchi and the rest of the JEVC are not typical environmental activists. Tateuchi used to be an F-1 engineer, and most members of the club are still avid racing fans, competing in electric-car contests on a regular basis. "I've got nothing against speed," Tateuchi says. "But we need flexibility." @

Note: The function "email this page" is currently not supported for this page.