As governments around the world begin to get even tougher on traditional combustion engines, Japan's car manufacturers are well positioned to put their world-leading technologies to the test. Julian Ryall reports.
In front of hundreds of journalists and Nissan dealers from across Japan, Hiroto Saikawa took the stage at the Makuhari Messe Convention Hall on September 6 and unveiled the car that takes electric vehicles (EV) to a new level and underlines Japanese automakers' ambitions in the zero-emissions market.
"Nissan takes pride in being an EV pioneer," Saikawa said. "The launch of the new Nissan Leaf comes at a time when the entire world is shifting towards an era of EVs.
"This is definitely a great opportunity and we intend to make the most of it," he said.
The latest evolution of the Leaf, some seven years after the launch of the first-generation vehicle to bear the name, incorporates autonomous driving and parking technologies - but it is the power train that has attracted most of the attention.
The vehicle has a range of 400 kilometers, up significantly from the 117-kilometers range of the first Leaf, as well as 110 kilowatt of power output, an improvement on the initial 80 kilowatt.
The timing of the unveiling of the vehicle was opportune, given that European countries like France and Britain had recently announced that they intend to completely end the sale of gasoline and diesel cars by 2040 as part of their efforts to reducing pollution and carbon emissions.
Even more significantly, four days after the Tokyo event, China's industry ministry announced that it was drawing up a timetable to end the production and sale of traditional internal combustion engine cars in order to develop electric technology.
No firm date has been set for the Chinese initiative, but the announcement is reportedly intended to pressure domestic companies to step up their research and development of electric vehicles. Inevitably, the initiative in the world's largest vehicle market will also offer opportunities for Japanese car firms.
John R. Harris, a long-time auto sector writer, says the industry is rapidly approaching a "tipping point" and that it is crucial for Japanese car firms to be at the forefront of the technological change.
"When the first Leaf came out, the cost of the battery was around $750 per kilowatt-hour, but that has fallen to around $300 per kilowatt-hour today and we are rapidly approaching the point - estimated to be around $160 per kilowatt-hour - at which electric vehicles become cheaper than traditional gasoline engines," he told DW.
'Much less to break'
"And we must remember that an electric car no longer needs so many of the expensive parts that make up a conventional engine - the engine block, the gas tank, the transmission, the exhaust system - and that there is so much less in an electric car that can break," he said.
Toyota Motor Corp. was one of the earliest market leaders in the electric vehicle market, releasing the hybrid Prius in 1997 and upgraded variants in subsequent years. By January 2017, the company had reported global cumulative sales of 6.1 million units, although the company appears to be focusing its new development strategies on hydrogen as a fuel.
Honda Motor Co. was also an early champion of electric vehicles, producing the first EV Plus in 1997. But just as its rivals began to ramp up research and development of electric power trains, Honda began holding back and switched its efforts to hydrogen-fueled cars.
By the time it switched back to plug-ins, it had slipped behind its competitors.
Another of Japan's car manufacturers, Mazda Motor Corp, has tried another tactic by investing in upgrading conventional engines to produce the SkyActiv power train.
Significantly, Toyota this year purchased a sizeable stake in Mazda, in the same way that it did with Subaru a few years ago.
Harris believes those purchases may have been intended to frustrate the well-funded but novice car makers in the US such as automaker Tesla Inc. from snapping up "a company that really knows how to mass produce high-quality cars."
Bolstering US operations
Following the deal, Toyota and Mazda quickly announced plans to bolster their operations in the United States, with investment of $1.6 billion in a new production facility and the creation of 4,000 new jobs.
The hybrid Prius will not meet new requirements for zero-emissions cars in California that come into effect in 2018, so the company is expected to release its first full electric vehicle in 2020. It is also contemplating mass production of electric vehicles in China as early as 2019.
But Nissan appears to be ahead of the game with the Leaf.
"We were the first to launch a mass-market electric vehicle, with the first-generation Leaf, and the seven years since then have given us market experience, knowledge of our customers' likes and dislikes, allowed us to improve the technology and determine what the next generation should be capable of," said Nick Maxfield, a spokesman for the Yokohama-based company.
"We have built up a lot of knowhow on the design and development side and we are actively looking to expand the range of electric vehicles that we produce," he said.