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Tokyo Motor Show part 1: It was very, very green.

November 17, 2009 1 comment

So late as to be virtually irrelevant – my report on the Tokyo Motor Show.

The floor of the main exhibition hall

To put it bluntly, this year’s show – strictly by the numbers – was a disaster. Attendance, floor space used, the number of exhibitors, number of exhibited vehicles and number of world and Japan premieres all paled in comparison. The atmosphere on the floor was one of confused disappointment: No one was sure what they were seeing, but everyone could be confident it wasn’t what they came for.

Those looking for pageantry, elaborate displays, stunning models and enthralled throngs were the most disappointed. In the place of such excess, there were simple, down to earth displays, and lots and lots of green.

The Subaru Stella EV

Subaru had the Stella EV on offer, a limited production and prohibitively expensive electric kei currently leased to city governments and zipcar-style rental agencies. Mitsubishi also brought their well-know MiEV “i” kei and the MiEV Cargo, a lock for the title of ugliest car of the show. These, and other EVs which made their presence felt are solely technology demonstrators, with little prospect for mass production, much akin to the Honda FCX Clarity, which holds aloft the banner for hydrogen alone.

The production-ready Nissan Leaf EV

The Leaf made its pre-production debut, and will be the first true turnkey, mass-market EV when it goes on sale. More than niche players like Tesla or lease only vehicles like the GM EV1 of yesteryear, this represents the future of the everyman’s EV. It can be almost certain that others will follow, however: the market is receptive, and simply needs a compelling product to gain traction. Such a product might look like this:

The Honda EV-N

Honda’s EV-N has exactly the kind of style to burst open the EV market in Japan. The sleeper hit of the show, it’s a running prototype, and honda is not new to EVs, having successfully tested the limited production EV Plus from 1997.

Electric concepts were not limited to four wheels, however, as all the players in the two-wheel market showed up with a selection of bikes from the feasible to the far fetched.

Honda's EVE-neo

The EVE-neo represents Honda’s most serious glimpse yet of what two-wheeled electric mobility will look like. Together with the EV Cub, they are a glimpse at what’s coming down the pipeline within a few years. Yamaha brought three of its own electric concepts to the party, including the out-there EC-f, while Suzuki displayed its commitment to hydrogen with the Burgman Fuel Cell Scooter concept (and the amusingly named Mio Fuel Cell “Seniorcar” mobility vehicle)

Yamaha's EC-f

Honda sought to push the boundaries of mobility, however, with the most infamous concept of the show: The all electric, gyroscopic unicycle.

Honda's U3-X unicycle


To say unicycle does this concept no justice, however, as it has the rather unnerving ability to move sideways and diagonally as well – its “wheel” is essentially a toroidal axle for smaller transversely mounted wheels, creating, in essence, a wheel which moves in two dimensions. If you’re having trouble picturing this, imagine a hula hoop strung with donuts. Move forward by rolling the hula hoop, move sideways by spinning the donuts, move diagonally by doing both at the same time.

With so many pure EVs and hydrogen concepts, hybrids seemed rather passé: The only noteworthy new hybrid was Mitsubishi’s PX-MiEV Plug-in Hybrid Crossover Concept. Say that five times fast! So while hybrids are certainly in everybody’s product pipeline, the manufacturers all want us to look one step further down the road. After all, a hybrid is just an expensive gasoline car with low margins. But an EV? That’s a vehicle with an entire new infrastructure to go with it. And surprise, surprise, Mitsubishi was all about the vertically integrated electric infrastructure at this year’s show. Panasonic showed up quite a bit, and Honda is big on its designs for solar and natural gas based electric and hydrogen home charging stations. When one considers that most of the profit which comes from mobility is generated by oil companies, putting the power in the consumer’s hands – literally – could take a large part of that back. It’s just a thought.

Mitsubishi's PX-MiEV Plug-in Hybrid Crossover Concept

That’s all for part 1. Part 2 will follow shortly with the more visceral bits – the things that go fast. There were a few, thank goodness.

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An earthquake in Aichi

November 4, 2009 Leave a comment

The last two days have seen Bridgestone and Toyota both confirm their withdrawl from F1. This, with the laughable likelyhood of Sato, Nakajima or Kobayashi finding a drive next year all but guarantees that we will soon be seeing the unthinkable: a complete absence of Japanese participation in the sport.

The consequences are dire. The Tokyo Motor Show (coverage of which is delayed due to these events) was another indicator that, at least in the domestic market, the Japanese auto industry is no longer clinging to the edge – it has let go.

The issues with F1, specifically, are not
limited to the Japanese teams. Were it not for the prop of middle-eastern investment, the whole F1 circus would have come grinding to a halt years ago as costs escalated. Toyota’s inability to control costs to the parent company owes much to the rigidness of an organization fixed to a corporate parent.

The same applies to BMW, and it’s clear that, moving forward, the large automaker as F1 team owner is an unsustainable arrangement.

In that sense (as in many) Toyota will not much be missed. But the vacuum its absence leaves is hard to swallow as a source of national pride. Toyota was relevant as the last Japanese team, in a series that in April 2008 featured three, with more than a third of the grid powered by Japanese engines, the whole grid shod in Japanese rubber and with two Japanese drivers. In a country where perception is everything, this is a crushing blow.

One imagines the possibilities if Honda’s management was braver a year ago…

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The 41st Tokyo Helmet Show

November 2, 2009 Leave a comment

 

Your intrepid author. Image courtesy Koji Oishi.

 

The 41st Tokyo Motor Show. Of cars, there were few, this much I reported here previously. But helmets? Lots. Which made all the difference in the world. So thank you, Arai. And congrats to Sebastian Vettel, even if he still feels like the first loser. Lots more to follow tomorrow.