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Business

Japan's automakers scurry to stay ahead of the curve

Honda Motor is planning to launch this FCV as early as March 2016.

TOKYO -- Japanese automakers are well-aware that their industry is on the cusp of a new era. Power sources, parts and materials all look destined to change. This, in turn, will send shock waves through a host of other sectors. 

     The challenge for the country's car companies: defining the vehicles of tomorrow. 

     Speaking at the 44th Tokyo Motor Show in October, Toyota Motor President Akio Toyoda brought up Ford's revolutionary Model T. After that car's introduction about 100 years ago, he said, some 15 million horses in the U.S. were replaced by automobiles in a span of 20 years.

     "Hybrid vehicles were also once seen as ridiculous," Toyoda said. "They have become commonplace. But unless we move on, we will not be able to open the way to the future."

     To forge that path, Japanese automakers are now focusing on hydrogen fuel cell vehicles and electric cars. "Automobiles equipped with only engines will not be able to survive," said Kiyotaka Ise, Toyota's senior managing officer. Toyota has set a target of reducing sales of gasoline-engine cars to nearly zero by 2050.

     Meanwhile, Honda Motor is preparing to produce fuel cell vehicles at its plant in the Tochigi Prefecture town of Takanezawa. 

     Honda lost to Toyota in the hybrid game. It terminated production of its Insight model in 2014, whereas Toyota is rolling out the fourth generation of its Prius on Wednesday. 

     Honda also lags behind Toyota when it comes to fuel cell cars. Toyota's Mirai at the end of 2014 became the world's first mass-produced fuel cell vehicle to hit the market. 

     Nevertheless, Honda is no newcomer to the field. Its FCX in 2002 became the first fuel cell car certified by the U.S. government. And it seems determined not to let Toyota prevail in this segment.

     Honda President Takahiro Hachigo said the new model to be produced in Takanezawa will be able to travel more than 700km on a full tank of hydrogen. Toyota's Mirai runs 650km.

Industrial pileup

Fuel cell vehicles have rotating motors, which are powered by electricity generated through a chemical reaction between hydrogen in tanks and oxygen in the air. They are said to be the ultimate light-on-the-planet cars, as they emit only water -- no greenhouse gases and other pollutants.

     Deloitte Tohmatsu Consulting, a Tokyo-based research company, expects sales of these cars to grow in Japan -- so much that the annual spillover on the nation's economy could reach 4.4 trillion yen ($35.4 billion) in 2030.

     This growth is bound to have a big impact on not only the auto industry but also related sectors, such as oil refining, which is already struggling with excess capacity and weak demand.

     "We are in a very difficult situation because demand is continuing to decline," said Showa Shell Sekiyu President Tsuyoshi Kameoka. The harsh business environment prompted his company and bigger domestic rival Idemitsu Kosan to reach a basic agreement to merge as early as October 2016.

     Autoparts suppliers will also be affected by the shift away from gasoline engines.

     Nippon Piston Ring is already diversifying to cope. Utilizing its core high-precision processing technology, the company is now producing aluminum parts for semiconductors and dental implants as well.

Into the unknown     

It is not just cars that will change, but also how we use them.

     Delivering a lecture at the Los Angeles Auto Show in November, John Zimmer, president of Lyft, a U.S.-based provider of ride-sharing services, said his daughter will not get a driver's license when she turns 16 because she will not need one.

     Lyft was founded in 2012. The company is now on track to hit $1 billion in gross annual revenue. The corporate valuation of U.S.-based Uber Technologies, Lyft's rival, is as much as $50 billion -- larger than that of Nissan Motor.

     Are Japanese companies really prepared for the changes ahead?

     Four days before Zimmer's lecture at the Los Angeles Auto Show, an event called Toyota Onramp 2015 was held in San Francisco. It included a contest, in which competitors were asked to craft business proposals centered on the i-Road, Toyota's ultracompact electric vehicle.

     Jason Weiner, who runs a software company, won the grand prize. His idea involved programming the i-Road to serve as either a car or an electric bike with limited speed, depending on whether the user has a driver's license. 

     Assuming it will not be able to stick to its current business model, Toyota is gathering new ideas any way it can.

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