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Japan gas-seller joins electric car race, seeing an end to oil

Idemitsu venture with Tajima Motor to deliver $9,500 compact this year

Idemitsu displayed a concept model of its EV at the Tokyo Motor show in 2019.

TOKYO -- Japanese oil company Idemitsu Kosan has partnered with race-car manufacturer Tajima Motor to enter the electric vehicle market as early as this year, aiming to deliver autos for as low as 1 million yen ($9,500) as well as car sharing services.

This marks the first time in Japan that a non-automaker has made the jump into electric vehicles since the government announced its goal late last year to have the country's autos go fully electric by the mid-2030s.

American luxury EV maker Tesla has pioneered the market for the vehicles, but cheaper alternatives priced as low as $4,500 have recently taken China by storm. The market is also becoming more fragmented with some models designed for long-haul trips and others targeted at daily chores such as shopping, creating more entry points for new enterprises.

The Idemitsu Kosan-Tajima joint venture will begin producing the electric vehicles at the race-car maker's site in Shizuoka Prefecture as early as this fall. Once mass production is on track, a dedicated facility will be built.

The ultracompact vehicle is 2.5-meters long and 1.3-meters wide, with room for four passengers. A revised law passed last year allows vehicles that small to be driven on public roads. The vehicle sports a maximum speed of 60 kph and is equipped with safety features such as anti-sideslip. It will be priced between 1 million yen and 1.5 million yen.

The body is composed of a high-performance plastic that Idemitsu developed using its expertise in petrochemicals. Power will be generated by lithium-ion batteries that will be purchased from outside the company. Household outlets can be used for recharging, which will take about eight hours. The cruising range is 100 km, making it ideal for tasks like trips to a local supermarket. The electric vehicle is particularly well suited for new drivers and older people. 

Idemitsu will sell the vehicle at its 6,400 gas stations nationwide, which will also offer car sharing services and maintenance. The company expects gasoline demand to decline over the long term, and by tapping the growing EV market, hopes to find a new role for its gas stations.

Unlike conventional gasoline-powered automobiles, electric vehicles are easy to assemble, providing an opening for non-automakers to enter the business. Toyota Motor began marketing its own electric vehicle priced at 1.65 million yen to corporate and government customers at the end of last year. Next year, it plans to expand sales to individuals. 

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