Where Are the Electric Cars in Japan?

We’ve been in Kyoto for over a week, and in that time I have seen exactly three electric cars: two Nissan Leafs and one BMW i3. I didn’t expect to see a Tesla every few minutes like I do in the San Francisco Bay Area — the Model S is a very large car by local standards and would be unusable on the majority of Kyoto streets — but I did expect to see more compact Japanese EVs. (Update: 9 hours after posting this, I saw a white Model X in the central Kyoto! Funny story, see footnote*)

Maybe I wasn’t recognizing some local EV models because they aren’t sold in the US. Turns out there are some Mitsubishi and Nissan models I probably wouldn’t recognize but their sales numbers are tiny. In fact Japanese EV sales are disappointingly low and declining: less than 2,000 in January 2017 which is down from about 3,500 in January 2016.

Another factor that may be influencing EV sales in Japan is the decision by the government to promote hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (FCV), a dead end technology in my opinion because they are inherently more complex and far less efficient than a BEV (battery electric vehicle) and the fueling infrastructure is very expensive to build (over US$1 million for a hydrogen fueling station with a single connection) compared to BEV charging stations that can be as simple as a 240V plug in your garage. A Tesla Supercharger with 10 charging pedestals providing 440V/135kW high speed charging costs less than US$250,000 to build in the US and can charge almost a thousand EVs a day compared to a hydrogen station that can only charge about one hundred FCVs a day.

Gas is Expensive in Japan, But so is Electricty

Given that the price of gasoline is over US$4/gal and that Japanese do not do much long distance travel by car, I would have thought that compact short range EVs would be a growing market here.

Short range plug-in hybrids like the new Toyota Prius PHV (called the Prius Prime in the US) are outselling EVs but not in huge numbers. The Prius PHV has a real-world pure-electric range of only about 20 miles (after which the gas engine powers the car) but for most people that may be enough. Perhaps it will help with the transition to EVs in the same way as the moderately successful Chevy Volt has done in the US?

Maybe the low EV sales in Japan reflect the price of electricity here. This source shows an average 2015 price of US$0.268/kWh in Japan compared to US$0.18/kWh in the US. So the Japanese would pay almost double what Americans pay to charge their EV.

Solar Power Generation is Trending Up

One bit of good news is that Solar power generation is increasing dramatically. Perhaps as more people add solar to their rooftops they will be more likely to consider an EV as their next car?

The upcoming 2018 Nissan Leaf EV with an improved range of around 200 miles (previously it was only 70 miles) may kickstart EV sales. Design is not to my taste, but to each his own…


The Prius PHV hybrid can only go about 20 miles in pure electric mode. And in my opinion the front end design borders on the grotesque.


The new Tesla Model 3, going into production in July 2017, has a base range of over 215 miles and likely will go over 260 miles with the optional higher capacity battery. But at over 15 feet long and 74 inches wide it is a large car by Japanese standards and I don’t expect it to sell in significant numbers in Japan.

The Model 3 is a seriously beautiful vehicle.


*Tesla Model X sighting story: We were sitting in the back row of a Kyoto City Bus when the white X approached in the oncoming lane. I was so surprised I almost shouted to Rosemary “Look an X!”. We both turned to watch it pass us and stared out the back window of the bus. The Japanese lady sitting next to me decided that my outburst meant we had missed a bus stop, so speaking in Japanese she kindly indicated to me the button to push to tell the driver to be sure and stop at the next place. I thanked her but was unable to explain what we had been reacting to. At the next stop, when we did not rise from our seats, she tried to tell us that this was the stop, and all I could do was thank her, shake my head, and stay seated. I hope she didn’t think that I had lost my mind!

Next post about our Kyoto trip >>> Hiking up Mt. Atago: a Million Steps

One thought on “Where Are the Electric Cars in Japan?

  1. “and one BMW i3.” I like “by barry” . You probably don’t know that I sign my emails to friends, either robin or r


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