EDITORIAL/OPINION
PHOTO CAPTION: Honda P-Nut Ultracompact concept car could be ICE-powered or electric.

Japan Urged to Allow Use of Ultracompact Electric Cars

Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper urges lawmakers in Japan to follow Europe's lead and allow the wider utilization of small, urban city cars that seat one or two passengers to ease traffic congestion.

Published: 28-Aug-2012

We hope next-generation small cars will drastically change Japan's motorized society.

The Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry and automakers have taken steps toward realizing the use of "ultracompact cars" for handy transportation within communities.

Ultracompact cars, which accommodate only a driver or a driver and one passenger, are electric vehicles slightly smaller than compact cars. With a maximum speed of about 80 kph, they are meant for short-distance use of about 10 kilometers a day.

In Europe, such ultracompacts are used in cities with narrow streets. In Japan, however, ultracompacts are currently not allowed to travel on ordinary roads, which are restricted to compacts and larger vehicles.

Following experiments it launched in fiscal 2010 to allow ultracompacts on roads in a limited number of areas, the transport ministry plans to introduce as early as this autumn a system that would allow such cars to travel on public roads if municipalities request such a change.

The ministry aims to revise the Road Transport Vehicle Law in several years so ultracompacts can be legally classified as a new category of vehicles and used widely in Japan.

Boost for market

Creating a new category of vehicles for the first time in half a century would undoubtedly invigorate the shrinking domestic automobile market. It would provide a tailwind for efforts to expand the use of electric vehicles, a field in which Japanese automakers have an edge over their foreign rivals. We hope the government and private firms will cooperate to expedite the practical use of ultracompacts.

The attraction of ultracompacts lies in their potential to develop new demand.

Elderly people can use them to run errands to shops in local communities, many of which are no longer served by public transportation companies. Capable of making small sharp turns, the cars can be used in narrow streets by retailers making deliveries as well as by people visiting tourist spots.

In urban areas, where parking space is often hard to come by, ultracompacts could be shared by residents of the same apartment complex. Also, their sales to young consumers, who are increasingly shying away from buying vehicles, may steadily increase.

On the other hand, there are problems that must still be tackled.

As the cars are extremely small, it is difficult for drivers of larger vehicles to see them. And there are doubts about their safety if collision do occur.

New standards a must

The ministry must set standards to ensure both the safety and convenience of users of ultracompacts. It should consider introducing safety devices that would make up for any decline in elderly drivers' physical strength and ability to make judgments when driving.

But excessively strict safety standards would push up manufacturing costs and thereby sales prices, hindering the broader use of ultracompacts. This factor is making many automakers think twice about developing such vehicles.

Tax breaks or other forms of financial incentives to prod consumers into buying the cars should eventually be considered if the government wants ultracompacts to be widely used nationwide.

Furthermore, steps must be taken so that ultracompacts do not disrupt traffic. They travel slower than larger vehicles, which could create traffic congestion on ordinary roads. Creating a traffic lane solely for slow-moving vehicles and securing parking space will be crucial points in improving infrastructure for the convenience of people.

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