Can Japan make cars for people who don’t want them?

Auto firms at the Tokyo Motor Show have been laying out their vision for a generation keener on phones than automobiles.

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Cars like Nissan's iMK concept electric vehicle, shown here at this year's Tokyo Motor Show, highlighted the direction auto giants are taking as they grapple with falling sales and concerns about the environment [Gavin Blair/Al Jazeera]

Tokyo, Japan – The Tokyo Motor Show wrapped up on Monday, as the global auto industry faces its greatest upheavals in decades.

After years of bumper growth, 2019 is seeing sales of new cars falling globally, most precipitously in China and India, two markets that until recently had shown the most promise. 

Creating a perfect storm for the industry are challenges from ride-hailing services, car-sharing, electrification, stricter fuel standards, and a younger generation less interested in owning a vehicle than their parents.

The biennial Tokyo Motor Show is one of the global industry’s biggest events, though recent editions have become increasingly dominated by domestic carmakers. This year, the only overseas carmakers with a significant presence were Germany‘s BMW and French firm Renault, the latter present because of its strained alliance with troubled local giant Nissan

However, the Tokyo event gives a glimpse into how Japan’s top carmakers plan to adapt to the rapidly changing demands on their industry.

While Japan remains a test market for domestic carmakers, it is shrinking. The peak of new car sales of 7.78 million vehicles was reached in 1990 at the height of the Japanese bubble economy. The Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association projects sales in Japan this year to be 5.2 million. Japan’s well-documented demographic issues are another concern, with the population forecast to shrink by about 20 million by 2040.

Electric future

Grabbing the attention of a shrinking younger demographic less interested in cars and stricter fuel efficiency regulations are “the big challenges” facing the industry, said Honda spokesperson Yuzo Mori.

“With young people spending their money on other things, such as smartphones, it might be that in the future that we see a single shared car for a shared house,” Mori told Al Jazeera.

While many firms have introduced hybrid cars – vehicles that combine a traditional fuel-burning engine with an electric motor – regulations and consumer demand are pushing carmakers everywhere towards an all-electric future.

China’s BYD and United States-based Tesla lead the world in terms of firms that specialise in pure electric vehicles (EVs). But incumbent auto giants, including German, US and Japanese firms, are starting to use their enormous production and distribution networks to introduce more EV models that could give smaller manufacturers some serious competition.

Japan’s Honda has been relatively late to the EV party. Its Clarity Electric in the US is its only fully-electrified model on the market.

“We see the EVs on the road and don’t believe drivers are satisfied with them. Honda is aiming to make the kind of EV customers want to drive,” Kohei Hitomi, chief engineer at its product planning division, told Al Jazeera.

Hitomi added that Honda is aiming for a summer 2020 launch for its new EV in Japan and for electrified vehicles to account for 30 percent of global sales by 2030. 

Other Japanese manufacturers at the show also displayed their electric dreams. And Suzuki also appears to be responding to the trend towards shared ownership.

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Suzuki’s Waku SPO electric prototype car [Gavin Blair/Al Jazeera]

The company’s Waku SPO prototype electric vehicle is a two-door plug-in combining futuristic features with retro styling in homage to the company’s iconic 1971 Fronte Coupe. Designed for three-generation households, the prototype is equipped with a face-recognition system which adjusts the interior, seat settings, grille and even the shape of the ultra-compact car to suit the driver.

The Waku provides “an electric car-sharing solution to multi-generational families living under the same roof,” Suzuki product planner Yoshiaki Usui told Al Jazeera.

Meanwhile, Mazda will celebrate the centenary of its founding next year with its first fully-electric vehicle in the MX-30 SUV. It features an interior heavy on cork, a nod to the company’s origins as the Toyo Cork Kogyo Co.

“There are a lot of reused materials, including recycled plastic bottles, used in manufacture and the range is expected to be around 200 kilometres, though that hasn’t been officially verified yet,” Makoto Watanabe, a Mazda global product spokesperson, told Al Jazeera.

The antithesis of Mazda’s offering was Toyota’s E-Racer, a Batmobile-like electric concept sports car.

Look! No hands!

The other big automotive trend is the shift towards autonomous vehicles.

Suzuki’s other vision for the future is the autonomous EV concept vehicle, the Hanare, something akin to a mobile room that can be enjoyed while on the move or stationary.

Honda is planning to bring models that will allow “hands-off, eyes-off” operation in traffic jams on motorways to market next year. Honda is aiming for fully autonomous driving on major roads by 2024.

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Nissan’s Ariya electric car [Gavin Blair/Al Jazeera]

Nissan has been an EV pioneer with its Leaf model and is now pushing ahead with autonomous technology, which it was more eager to talk about at the motor show than the leadership crisis and plunging profits which have engulfed the company.

While some concept vehicles are still engineers’ pipedreams, Nissan is “very serious” about bringing its Ariya 4WD EV SUV prototype to market. Dual motors will deliver a powerful, responsive drive, “even on snowy roads,” said chief product specialist Makoto Fukuda.

Nissan is planning to equip the Ariya with an autonomous system, which it is also deploying on new models in its famous Skyline range.

“When I was a child, in science-fiction there were vehicles floating on air through glass tubes. We want customers to remember the excitement of those childhood images of futuristic cars,” said Fukuda.

Source: Al Jazeera