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Editorial: Japan must keep eyes on global auto industry's shift from combustion engines

Moves are accelerating within the automobile industry to eliminate combustion engines in cars.

    Britain will ban the sale of new gasoline and diesel vehicles by 2030, five years earlier than previously planned, as a measure to battle global warming. The U.S. state of California will similarly do so by 2035, as will France by 2040.

    Due to the strengthening of exhaust regulations in Europe, the sale of electric vehicles is surging, accounting for 10% of vehicle sales between July and September.

    Is Japan keeping up with such trends?

    In 2009, Mitsubishi Motors Corp. announced it would be the first in the world to mass-produce electric vehicles, and it took the lead in such technology. But in the domestic Japanese market, the share of electric vehicles does not even reach 1%. Japan needs to step up its game.

    While hybrid vehicles have gained ground in this country, electric vehicles, which are more expensive and have lacked infrastructure for charging them within Japan, have not entered the mainstream.

    Considering hydrogen fuel cell vehicles as the likely favorite for the next generation, Toyota Motor Corp. has turned its attention toward a strategy of extending the life of hybrid vehicles. The company reportedly wanted to avoid negatively impacting parts manufacturers through a sudden change of course. Hybrids, however, are seen as a transitional type of technology in place until zero-emission vehicles spread. Since they employ combustion engines, it's possible they could lose recognition as eco-friendly vehicles in the future.

    In the electric vehicle industry, American clean energy company Tesla Inc. has surpassed Toyota in market capitalization -- a development emblematic of the major turning point the industry has approached.

    If the move toward electric vehicles advances, then the main parts that have a bearing on performance will change from engines to batteries and semiconductors.

    Technological innovation that enables electric vehicles to travel further on each charge and brings down their price requires a huge investment. Pressure to change the line of business of automobile parts manufacturers, and to reform supply networks is likely to emerge.

    The Japanese government has set a goal of bringing greenhouse gas emissions down to zero. To achieve this, it should bolster policies, encouraging a switch to green vehicles. Narrowing the scope of tax cuts for eco-friendly vehicles, which currently includes cars with engines, is probably a priority issue.

    Toyota is now planning the sale of several different models of electric vehicles, diverting its course with an eye on surviving in the industry.

    The Japanese automobile industry should not get caught up with its past success in opening up the eco-friendly vehicle market with hybrid vehicles, but instead quickly press ahead with a review of its strategy.

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