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Politics

Japan paves way for gas stations to charge up electric cars

Allowing convenience stores also expected to help struggling operators

Japanese law currently requires electric vehicle charging stations to be 10 meters away from gas pumps.

TOKYO -- The Japanese government will relax restrictions that hamper many gas stations from adding electric vehicle charging terminals, aiming to revitalize the distribution network and promote the spread of cars running on alternate fuels.

Japan's fire safety law strictly regulates where fueling stations can install plug-in points on their premises. Currently, charging and refueling stations for electric and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles must be about 10 meters away from a gas pump. For small stations, those rules severely limit how many of these vehicles they can accommodate.

But the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry is looking at revising the standards to let gas stations set up charging terminals alongside pumps, regardless of space. The code would be relaxed on a trial basis while monitoring safety, with pilot programs likely to be conducted in special deregulation zones.

METI will set up a study group that includes representatives from the oil and gas industries, and field opinions from the Fire and Disaster Management Agency and retailers. The ministry will publish a course of action by May, with the aim of loosening restrictions as soon as fiscal 2019.

Under the same fire prevention law, filling stations can run only car washes and a few other side businesses near their gas pumps. METI is set to introduce changes that will expand that roster to include convenience stores, supermarkets and package delivery depots. This would help gas stations diversify their revenue streams.

Gas stations are also legally obligated to have at least one employee present at all times, even at self-fueling stations. METI will consider completely unmanned gas stations, where pumps are remotely monitored with information technology tools.

Fuel supply tanks at filling stations currently must be installed underground, but modified rules would also allow tanks to be placed above ground.

With increasingly fuel-efficient vehicles and the rise of car-sharing, Japanese demand for gasoline is shrinking by 1-2% annually. There were 31,467 gas stations at the end of fiscal 2016, about half the number from two decades earlier.

Furthermore, European countries and China are turning away from internal combustion vehicles in favor of electric autos. Japanese automakers are busy developing electric vehicles as well. Autonomous driving is projected to become commercialized in the near future, meaning gasoline consumption would recede even further.

Meanwhile, there are about 23,000 electric vehicle charging terminals in operation, along with approximately 100 hydrogen stations. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government is aiming for 320 hydrogen stations by fiscal 2025.

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