Japan's carmakers apply talents to world's problems

Tokyo car show
Image caption A car that makes you coffee: a simple idea that has more socially responsible consequences

The Tokyo motor show has always been futuristic, traditionally showcasing some of the most outlandish car prototypes ever seen.

But at this year's show, it is as if the Japan's carmakers have taken a turn away from internal rivalry and bickering over who has the most powerful engine or the greatest market share, towards an uncharacteristically broadminded search for solutions to some of the biggest challenges facing mankind.

These days, it seems, it is not so much about how we drive, but instead about how we live our lives.

Using technology to help relieve some of life's most serious situations has particular resonance in natural disaster-prone Japan.

There is little doubt that the earthquake and tsunami in March, and the subsequent nuclear crisis, have also done much to change mindsets here.

"It had a huge impact on us," says Takashi Yamanouchi, chief executive of Mazda. "We've learnt a lot."

'Out of the box'

As if to illustrate the point, albeit on a tiny scale, Mitsubishi Motors' president, Osamu Masuko presses a few buttons on a coffeemaker to get the espresso flowing.

The coffee machine, although near a number of mains electricity sockets, is instead powered by the batteries in a Mitsubishi van.

It is an example of how manufacturers here are working towards a future where cars would be integral parts of broad-based technology solutions that go well beyond simple transport needs.

This machine and other could be used during power cuts, for instance - of which Japan has suffered often since electricity rationing was introduced in the spring following the closure of nuclear power plants.

On a larger scale, this sort of thinking could prove revolutionary, according to Mr Masuko.

"We'll need something that's so out of the box, something that's totally new, to protect the Earth and its people," he insists.

"Without such technology, we cannot win, and we cannot protect the environment."

Giving and receiving

Rival Nissan has taken the concept of cars that give as well as receive one step further, as illustrated by a poster that links its Leaf electric car to a range of household appliances, such as a vacuum cleaner, an iron, a washing machine and a fridge freezer.

Image caption The car show also threw up some of the more unique car models that Japan is known for

"The 100% electric Nissan Leaf is not just a means of transport, it can also discharge electricity to power your home," the poster announces.

Nissan's chief executive, Carlos Ghosn, believes the electric car is central to modern lives, especially in fast-growing cities across the world.

"This is about preparing for the future," he says.

"You are preparing the technology [and] you are preparing the products that are not going to be the pillars of your growth this year or next year, but the pillars of your growth four or five years down the road."

Powering the home

It is that sort of thinking that has resulted in the creation of a special exhibit at the show, dubbed "Smart Mobility City".

Here, the carmakers, along with technology companies and universities, exhibit a range of energy conservation solutions aimed at reducing waste and emissions while optimising the benefits that electricity can offer.

The exhibit differs from electric vehicle displays of the past, in that it is also about the home and the gadgets within it.

"Not only carmakers, but also home appliance manufacturers and even house builders, look to co-exist with the electric vehicle," observes Mitsubishi's Mr Masuko.

That may be so, but it does not mean that the electric car is seen merely as an alternative energy source during power cuts, for example.

Collectively, a nation's fleet of electric cars could also be turned into a bank of batteries storing electricity that has been created overnight or during other periods of weak demand from households, offices or factories.

This electricity would then be used during the day, so less energy would need to be created during times when demand is high.

In addition, this should help improve the economic proposition of energy generation systems, such as wind turbines or wave power, since all the electricity that is produced is sold, whether the wind or the waves are captured during the day or the night.

By contrast, much potential energy goes uncaptured or is wasted during periods when demand is not there, even though the wind turbines are turning and the seas are choppy.

Off the grid

In addition to storing the electricity, cars could also help distribute power from where it is generated to where it is eventually needed.

Image caption Smart Mobility City showcases technologies that could help cut emissions and fuel burn in the future

An example of this would be when an individual charges her car at her workplace where they have solar panels on the roof, only to use the car's battery to power her home in the evening and overnight.

This might seem superfluous for anyone in the developed world, but in developing countries where the grid might be far from where people live it would deliver change more revolutionary than mobile phones have done to households too far from the phone cable network.

"Many people are beginning to realise that renewable energy can reside comfortably with electric vehicles," says Mitsubishi's Mr Masuko.

There are, of course, plenty of reason why all this might be a pipe-dream, or perhaps even just a change in communications strategy by Japan's largest carmakers rather than a proper, fundamental change in the way they think about the world they operate in.

Didier Leroy, president of Toyota Motor Europe, also points out that "many people - particularly young people - have much less interest in the pure automotive" nowadays.

But he insists "everybody's working very hard on these topics" - and not just in Japan. "European competitors are very strong in this area, so they're not late."

If that makes him sound like he is eager to talk up a fundamentally filthy industry, than take note: Mr Leroy is balancing his favourable comments with a great deal of scepticism about battery technology, and he is particularly scathing about any efforts to "build business models that rely on government support".

As such, Mr Leroy is fairly representative of many a hard-nosed motor industry executive - only these days, it seems some of them have developed a taste for greater visions.

In the words of Mitsubishi's Mr Masuko: "If you focus too much on what's tangible and available right now, you may be looking at the future in the wrong way."

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