Have Japan’s automakers become battery EV players? Or are they still playing catch up?
Share Article
Read More
Vehicles
Nov 9, 2023
Brian Banks

Based on what we saw at the Japan Mobility Show, with highlights from the Toyota booth and an interview with Lexus, the answer is: a bit of both

Toyota CEO Koji Sato at the Japan Mobility Show, formerly the Tokyo Motor Show, which ended its two-week run on Sunday. Photo: Toyota

Based on what we saw at the Japan Mobility Show, with highlights from the Toyota booth and an interview with Lexus, the answer is: a bit of both

The Japan Mobility Show, formerly the Tokyo Motor Show, ended its two-week run on Sunday. Last held in 2019, the event’s focus this year was not just autos, but also an exhibition featuring hundreds of companies on the future of mobility and Japanese society.

For the global audience, however, carmakers were still the story.

Nine of the 12 passenger vehicle makers present were Japanese. And automotive journalists from around the world — including a large Canadian contingent — packed the massive hall on the Tokyo waterfront on media preview day to find out what the future of mobility looks like for those brands.

BEVs: What a concept

Prior to the show, most exhibitors had tipped their hands: the event would be heavy on concept cars and dominated by battery electric vehicles (BEVs).

The former is typical of the Japan show. The latter was more of a wild card, given the degree to which Japan’s automakers have lagged much of the world in developing battery electric vehicles rather than hybrids.

And it raised two key questions that were subsequently answered: Have Japan’s automakers changed their tune? (A: Not entirely.) Are they catching up? (A: Most definitely.)

Odd twist

In an odd twist, two North American automakers that weren’t present, GM and Ford, were the biggest sources of BEV gloom in the opening week.

The same day the gates opened in Tokyo, back in North America, GM announced a pullback in the pace of investments in electric vehicle product development and scrapped its short-term EV sales targets.

Ford, which had already announced a production cutback for its electric F-150 Lightning pickup, dropped a similar bombshell two days later, saying it would delay US$12 billion in EV investments due to weaker than hoped for consumer demand.

This news prompted Akio Toyoda, chairman of Toyota — the world’s largest automaker and a staunch advocate for a hybrids-first strategy — to say “people are finally seeing reality” while speaking to reporters at the show.

Toyota CEO Koji Sato
Toyota CEO Koji Sato at the Japan Mobility Show. Photo: Toyota

However, it was a different story when Koji Sato, who replaced Toyoda as Toyota’s president and CEO last April, kicked off the media day formalities with a presentation called “Find Your Future.”

Sato took the stage with a handful of EV concept vehicles. He spoke of “our future life with battery EVs” and how Toyota is “making battery EVs like only a true carmaker can.”

Production-ready concepts?

Sato’s presentation showcased four different concept EVs — a sporty two-seater (FT-Se), a small SUV (FT-3e), a small, customizable flatbed truck (IMV 0) and a box van (Kayoibako) customizable for passenger driving or commercial use. (Toyota had two more vehicles, an electric pickup (EPU) and a big SUV (Land Cruiser Se) in the booth off-stage.)

Orange two-door Toyota concept car
Toyota FT-Se concept. Photo: Toyota

In April, Toyota promised to launch 10 new BEVs by 2026 (while sticking firmly to its “multi-pathway” vehicle development approach). And many auto writers at the show remarked on how “production-ready” these concept EVs looked.

On stage, however, Sato only said the IMV 0 would “soon launch in Asia,” while offering no plans for the rest. Instead, he reiterated Toyota’s plan to bring the first of its next-generation EVs to market under the Lexus luxury brand (more on that below).

Road-ready vehicles scarce

It was a similar story throughout much of the complex.

Nissan, probably the most EV-forward of the Japanese carmakers, did have a current model Ariya on display. But none of the five new concept EVs it unveiled looked particularly ready for prime time.

Honda Prelude Concept
Honda showcases its Prelude Concept at the Japan Mobility Show. Photo: Electric Autonomy

Honda leaned heavily on the show’s “mobility” theme. It did show several electric passenger and small van concept vehicles. These included the Sustaina-C, a sleek subcompact made of acrylic resin that is recycled and reused; the CI-MEV, a self-driving, two-seat micro-mobility vehicle; and also a sporty electric Prelude concept about which Honda said in a release, “we are diligently progressing with development, so keep your expectations high.”

Honda GM Cruise Origin
Honda showcases its GM Cruise Origin at the Japan Mobility Show. Photo: Electric Autonomy

Besides those vehicles, Honda devoted much of its massive show-floor footprint to other modes of transportation: airplanes (including a one-fifth scale exterior eVTOL mock-up), the autonomous Cruise Origin ride-hailing vehicle, which it and GM plan to put into service in Japan in 2026; a concept scooter; a battery swapping station, and a handsfree wheelchair (the UNI-ONE) that users navigate with subtle body movements.

Suzuki’s booth included the eVX, an electric SUV that it first debuted as a concept car earlier this year, but which it plans to put into production by 2025. The model at the Japan show was described as being “nearly” production ready.

BMW, BYD two exceptions

BMW, one of two European OEMs at the show (Mercedes was the other), broke with the pack. In a world premiere, it unveiled an all-electric version of its X2 subcompact luxury crossover, the iX2. Its launch date is pegged for March 2024.

BYD Dolphin
BYD showcases Dolphin at the Japan Mobility Show. Photo: Electric Autonomy

Another OEM at the show with immediate, real-world aspirations was BYD. It was the Chinese automaker’s first appearance at the Japan show and it was out to make an impression. The highlight attraction was the Seal, an electric sport sedan that BYD is launching in Japan next spring.

BYD also had its all-electric hatchback Dolphin on display. Both it and BYD’s Atto are already on sale in Japan, as well as in many other global markets that BYD has targeted for expansion. For the time being, however, Canada and the U.S. are on the waiting list due to political and commercial tensions in this sector.

Lexus in the spotlight

Of all the exhibiting OEMs, Lexus stood apart in a couple of ways. Not only is it leading Toyota’s entrée into BEVs, but it is also the only Japanese OEM with a stated goal of converting its entire product line (roughly 30 models) to be fully electric in North America by 2030 and globally by 2035.

For these reasons, its unveiling of two concept vehicles, the LF-ZC and LF-ZL, drew a lot of attention.

Both are low-slung, angular, aggressive designs; luxurious but sporty. The ZC is earmarked as a forerunner of a 2026 production model. Like the Toyota vehicles described earlier, it looked very nearly production-ready. Lexus says the ZL is meant to be more representative of the overall direction for the brand than any one coming vehicle.

Side view of dark silver four-door Lexus LF-ZC concept car
The Lexus LF-ZC concept car will go into production in 2026. Photo: Lexus

Beyond all the design details, Lexus emphasized three keys to how this next generation of EVs will take on the market: with smaller, higher energy density lithium ion batteries that offer extensive range (up to 1,000 km) while providing more room for flexible design; using gigacasting to simplify chassis construction; and an operating system (called Arene) that provides a hyper-personalized driving experience that will learn and evolve with the driver as well as turning the car into a “sensor” that interacts in new ways with the outside environment.

Making the leap

Electric Autonomy and reporters from several other outlets had an opportunity to speak with Lexus president Takashi Watanabe and chief branding officer Simon Humphries to ask a bit more about their strategy for making a successful leap to full electrification when many markets and buyers aren’t completely sold on the idea.

Watanabe framed it foremost as a branding challenge. “With electrification, what kind of car do we need to make? What makes Lexus unique and original?” he said, through a translator.

Humphries emphasized the potential for the operating system to create a driving experience that’s radically different than what we see today, and to attract people with features that only a BEV can offer.

“The most obvious [difference] is that you’d be able to program the drive dynamics. So instead of just having one single taste in the way that the car handles, you can literally customize your dynamics,” he said.

In explaining the notion of a car as a “sensor,” meanwhile, he drew parallels to the way the iPhone has cultivated a massive ecosystem of app developers that create content that defines the experience of using the device.

“[The content with a car] is very, very reliant on the motion of the vehicle. So [with the operating system] we’re trying to create a base for the content makers who can build off that. A mobile phone has a drop sensor in it, it has a G sensor, it has a location sensor…and the app makers are building content off of those devices. That’s the same sort of logic that we’re talking about, but with a car.”

Driver's eye view looking through front window of a car
Lexus finger-pointing virtual reality demo. Photo: Lexus

As an example, he referenced a “finger-pointing application” Lexus demonstrated as part of a virtual reality demonstration in its booth. Through the operating system, “you can drive the car, point at someone, say, ‘He looks cool, where did you buy that shirt?’ Or, ‘That’s a restaurant, book me a table.'”

A BEV-exclusive experience

Speaking about macro-level challenges and uneven market readiness due to buyer attitudes or poor infrastructure, Watanabe said this requires a two-pronged response.

In part, it means working directly or indirectly to reassure buyers that regardless of the infrastructure, “[your EV] is still as easy to use as possible compared to an internal combustion engine.”

The other part of the equation, he added, “is to increase the appeal of BEV as a product itself. What kind of BEV-exclusive experience, that you can only experience with a BEV, can we offer?”

The writer was a guest of Toyota. Content was not subject to approval.

View Comments
You May Also Like
Related
Sign up for the Electric Autonomy newsletter to get news, opinions and original journalism delivered straight to your inbox.
Electric Autonomy Canada is an independent news platform reporting on Canada’s transition to electric vehicles, autonomous transportation and new mobility services.
Copyright © 2024 – ArcAscent Inc. — Electric Autonomy Canada – All Rights Reserved - Privacy Policy - Terms & Conditions
With the participation of the Government of Canada