AUTOMOBILES IN JAPAN: HISTORY, SALES, FOREIGN CARS, LOWRIDERS AND NEW TECHNOLOGIES

AUTOMOBILES IN JAPAN

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old Japanese car
Number of cars on the road: 52.7 million passenger cars (compared to 127 million in the United States) and 18.46 million commercial vehicles. Person per automobiles: 3.2 (compared to 1473 automobiles per person in Ethiopia and 1.8 in the United States). Mini-vehicles account for more than 30 percent of domestic auto sales in Japan. Each year they are accounting for larger share of the vehicle market.

Best-selling vehicles in Japan in 2009 (units sold, increase from previous year): 1) Toyota Prius (208,528, 186 percent); 2) Suzuki Wagon R (201,528, -1.9 percent); 3) Daihatsu Move (182,325, -4.2 percent); 4) Honda Fit (157,324, 10.4 percent); 5) Daihatsu Tanto (145,432, -8.7 percent); 6) Toyota Vitz (117,655, -4.6 percent); 7) Toyota Passo (98,883, 35.9 percent); 8) Honda Insight (92,283, new in 2009); 9) Toyota Corolla (90,178, -37.4 percent); 10) Suzuki Alto, (87,386, 23.4 percent). [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun]

Nine of the top rated cars in 10 categories rated by Consumers Reports in 2010 were Japanese. Six were Toyotas. Two were Hondas. One was a Nissan.

Japan also produces a lot of used cars, many of which end up in Russia. At some auctions for used cars, 70 percent of the buyers purchase vehicles of the overseas market, namely Russia, Southeast Asia, Pakistan and Iran. Japanese laws which make it more expensive to register a car the older it gets encourage owners to sell their cars after three years. After three years car owners have a formidable car inspection that cost $1,200 and have to repeat the process every two years. After ten years the inspections are every year. This helps the Japanese car industry.

Several convenience store chains in Japan, including Circle K, Lawson’s and Family Mart offer car-sharing services. Under the system at Circle K members book a rental car at specified Circle K using the Internet or their cell phones, swipes his or her member card over the car’s door key and starts the car with an in-place ignition key. After the car is used the member returns it and pays the usage fee.

Automobile Industry, See Economics

History of Motor Vehicles in Japan

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Smart Car vending machine
It was in 1899 that Japan imported its first automobile. Motor vehicle production by Japanese manufacturers began in 1902. Although commercial vehicles and public transport crowded the nation’s city streets following their introduction, it was not until the 1960s that private car ownership began to increase rapidly. Three factors made this possible: rapid growth in income brought on by economic development, the emergence of a domestic automotive industry geared to the specific needs of the local market (small-sized, fuel-efficient vehicles), and improvement in roads. [Source: Web-Japan, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan]

“Between 1960 and 2000, the number of registered motor vehicles grew from 1.9 million to over 52 million. Two-car families have become common, and the number of trucks in use by commercial transport and delivery services has continued to increase. [Ibid]

“In 1970, the year the Traffic Safety Act went into effect, more than 16,000 people died in road-traffic accidents. However, by 2010 the number had fallen to 4,863, less than one-third of the 1970 total. Air pollution from motor vehicle emissions, including both exhaust gasses (nitrogen oxide, etc.) and the particulate matter emitted by diesel engines, is a serious problem in large metropolitan areas. Consequently, the government has placed strict legal controls on vehicle emissions and the sulfur content of fuels. [Ibid]

Automobile Sales in Japan

In 2006, Japan was surpassed by China as the world’s second largest automobile market. The sale of passenger cars reached 7.22 million in China, compared to 5.72 vehicles sold in Japan and 16.6 million sold in the United States. Vehicles sales in Japan in 2006 were a 20 year low.

Domestic automobile sales, including minicar sales, increased in 2010 thanks to eco-subsidies to 4,956,136 units according to the Japan Automobile dealers Association. Sales dropped sharply at the end of the years after the government subsidy program ended in July. New vehicle sales fell 51 percent in April 2011, the biggest ever drop for that month mainly due to the effects of the earthquake and tsunami on production and supplies to dealers.

New car sales rose in fiscal 2009 for the first time in seven years. Between April 2009 and March 2010, 3,182, 072 vehicles were sold in Japan. The increase was partly attributed to tax-breaks and subsidies for purchases of fuel-efficient vehicles. Sales reached their highest levels in 38 years in August as the government subsidies were set to expire then dropped off markedly when the subsidies ended. At the same time imported car sales dipped to a 21 year low on the back of higher prices due to the high value of the yen and decline of sales of luxury items due to the global economic crisis.

Domestic automobile production fell to a 33-year low in 2009 to 7,934,516 units, a 31.5 percent drop from the previous year. Production was its peak in 1990 when it reached 13.49 million units. China was the top car producer in 2009 with a production of 13.79 million units. Auto exports declined 27.1 percent in fiscal 2009 to 4,086, 631 units, the largest decline since data started being collected in 1973. Production fell 11.4 percent to 8,865,350 units.

Cars sales peaked in Japan during the bubble economy years. Sales in 2005 were about 33 percent less than they were in 1990. Six million cars were sold in 2000.Sales in 2008, excluding minicars, was 3.21 million, the lowest since 1968. Only 4.6 million were in 2009. Less than 3 million were regular-size cars, the rest were minicars.

Poor cars sales have been blamed on a shrinking, aging population, a saturation of the car market and the fact that consumers were spending their money on their cells phones, music players and flat screen televisions. In Japan, it is easy to get by without a car, most households that need a car have one and fees for parking and the like make owning two cars prohibitively expensive. Japanese automakers were hurt in 2008 and 2009 by global economic slump, high prices for steel and other material prices, a collapse of the American car market and a strong yen.

New Auto Sales in Japan Increase 3.3 Percent in Fiscal Year 2011

In April 2012, Jiji Press reported: “Domestic sales of new automobiles rose 3.3 percent year on year in fiscal 2011 after declining the previous year, industry data showed. In the year that ended March 2012 auto sales totaled 4,753,273 units, marking the first increase in two years, according to data released by the Japan Automobile Dealers Association and the Japan Mini Vehicles Association, but about half the domestic new car sales in 1990. [Source: Jiji press, April 3, 2012]

“After a first-half slump owing to disruptions in the supply of parts following the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, sales gained momentum in the latter half as automakers increased output to make up for earlier losses. The government helped by reviving a subsidy program for fuel-efficient vehicles. While auto sales are expected to be brisk for some time into fiscal 2012, thanks to the subsidy, a JADA official expressed concern that consumer sentiment would be hurt by soaring gasoline prices and a planned consumption tax increase.

Popular Automobiles in Japan

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Honda Fit
Best-selling vehicles in Japan in 2009 (units sold, increase from previous year): 1) Toyota Prius (208,528, 186 percent); 2) Suzuki Wagon R (201,528, -1.9 percent); 3) Daihatsu Move (182,325, -4.2 percent); 4) Honda Fit (157,324, 10.4 percent); 5) Daihatsu Tanto (145,432, -8.7 percent); 6) Toyota Vitz (117,655, -4.6 percent); 7) Toyota Passo (98,883, 35.9 percent); 8) Honda Insight (92,283, new in 2009); 9) Toyota Corolla (90,178, -37.4 percent); 10) Suzuki Alto, (87,386, 23.4 percent). [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun]

Suzuki’s WagonR was the best-selling car in Japan in May 2011. It sold 11,186 units and was the only car to exceed the 10,000 mark. Daihatsu’s Move, another minicar, was the second best-selling car. Suzuki’s WagonR was the best-selling car in Japan in May 2011. It sold 11,186 units and was the only car to exceed the 10,000 mark. Daihatsu’s Move, another minicar, was the second best-selling car.

The Suzuki WagonR was the best-selling vehicle in Japan in 2008 for the fifth consecutive year, with sales of 208,494, seven percent lower than the previous year. Daihatsu’s Move and Tanto were second and third. Honda Fit was forth and the leading car (not a mini-car), Toyota Corolla was fifth and the second leading car

Best selling cars in 2008 excluding minicars were: 1) Honda Fit (174,910 units, a 50 percent increase from the previous year); 2) Toyota Corolla (144, 051 units, a 21.1 percent drop from the previous year); and 3) Toyota Vitz, 123,337 units. Top selling vehicles in Japan in fiscal 2007 were: 1) Suzuki WagonR (224,082 units); 2) Daihatsu Move (199,924); 3) Honda Fit (148,253 units); Toyota Corolla (147,374). Eight of the top 10 spots were filled by minicars with engines less than 660cc and subcompact cars.

Top selling cars in Japan in 2002 (units): 1) Honda Fit (250,790); 2) Toyota Corolla (226,222); 3) Nissan March (139,332); 4) Toyota ist (103,332); 5) Toyota Vitz (100,801); 6) Toyota Noah (97,080); 7) Toyota Estima (95,765); 8) Toyota Voxy (77,958); 9) Nissan Cube (75,215); 10) Honda Mobilio (72,242).

The best selling minicars in 2004 were: 1) the Suzuki Wagon R, 2) the Daihatsu Move, 3) the Honda Life, 4) Suzuki Alto and 5) Daihatsu Mira.

Popular early models included the Toyota Mark II, the Nissan Sunn and Mazda Familai

Small Japanese Cars

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Nissan Cube
Japan owes much of its success to its production of small, fuel-efficient vehicles. The sale of these is particularly brisk when gasoline prices are high. Sales of small Japanese cars took off after the Energy Crisis in the 1970s but drivers abandoned them and began driving bigger cars again when gas prices dropped. American automakers responded to the Energy Crisis by building small cars like Pintos and Vegas that were worse than the large American cars.

Japanese automakers earned their reputation making fuel- efficient, reliable well-made, small cars. As the Japanese automobile industry grew they began producing all kinds of vehicles, including some gas guzzlers. By the 2000s, fuel- efficient, reliable well-made was not sexy enough and there was more emphasis on making cars with flashy designs and lots of horsepower.

Increasingly the Japanese are designing cars that are small on the outside and get good gas mileage but are roomy on the inside. They make cars that are more fuel-efficient, using light materials and efficient engines, and make them safe with new technology and semiconductors that snuff out problems.

Minicars in Japan

Minicar, or kei cars, are defined as four-wheeled vehicles measuring up to 3.4 meters long and 1.48 meters wide with an engine that is 660 cubic centimeters or smaller. They are taxed at a lower rate and have lower highway tolls than regular cars. Drivers of minicars pay lower tolls on bridges and expressways.

Minicars have become increasingly popular in Japan and now generate about a third of all new car sales there. They are defined under Japanese regulations being a maximum of 11.15 feet long, 4.86 feet wide and 6.56 feet high and with an engine smaller than 660 cc. [Source: Fred Meier, USA Today, September 27, 2011]

Fred Meier of USA Today wrote: "Minicars are popular not only for the tax savings but also with people who use cars for short commutes or grocery shopping, as well as with younger people who don't see cars as status symbols as did the older generation. They are also easy to handle on Japan's crowded streets, and some come in cute designs and colors that appeal to Japanese consumers."

Nissan, Japan's No. 2 automaker, has a deal with Mitsubishi for Mitsubishi to make minicars for Nissan.Honda already sells several minicar models in Japan and sold 160,000 total last year, about a quarter of its sales in Japan. In September 2011, Toyota launched its first minicar for the home market in Japan -- the Pixis Space. The entrance of Toyota, the elephant of the Japanese market, into the segment is expected to heat up the competition in Japan. It might also give Toyota additional products for some emerging markets.

Minicars typically sell for less than ¥1 million. The minicar market is the fastest-growing vehicle market in Japan. As of late 2005, minicars accounted for 22 percent of the car market in Japan. In 2006, minicar sales in Japan reached 2.02 million, a 4.5 percent increase from the previous year and the first time over 2 million. Six of the top 10 vehicles sold in Japan in 2006 were minicars.

The mincar market was the only segment of the Japanese vehicle market that grew in fiscal 2006-2007. High oil price that year increased demand for small cars, minicars and hybrids. Minicar sales fell off in 2009 as a result of competition from hybrids and more fuel efficient small cars.

Microcompacts Promoted Among the Elderly

In May 20122, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “The government plans to promote so-called microcompact cars’single- or twin-seater cars smaller than light vehicles---by creating a new vehicle category for them, The Yomiuri Shimbun has learned. The government expects such cars to draw particular attention from elderly people, who could use them to easily visit places in their neighborhoods and other nearby locations, according to sources. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, May 28, 2012]

“The authorized size and capacity of microcompact cars will be less than light vehicles but greater than category-1 motorized cycles, motorcycles of 50cc displacement and less. Microcompact cars are easier to handle than ordinary cars, which would be especially helpful for elderly people. The government has decided to promote microcompact cars as an increasing number of bus routes have been abolished in recent years, especially in rural areas, due to the declining population. [Ibid]

“If the cars meet certain standards under the new authorization system, they will be allowed on public roads. They will be first introduced to local governments for tourism purposes. Then the central government will decide the taxes to be applied to microcompact cars and the tax rates. Finally, the government will encourage automakers to mass-produce the cars, the sources said. [Ibid]

“Currently, category-1 motorized vehicles are meant only for the driver. Because of the cap on displacement, it is considered difficult to develop a small car powerful enough to accommodate two people. In the guidelines, the government plans to define microcompact cars as "single- or twin-seater vehicles smaller, more mobile and more environmentally friendly than [current] automobiles that serve as convenient transportation devices in local communities." The average travel distance of microcompact cars is expected to be about 10 kilometers a day. The cars will be required to make noise when they approach passersby. [Ibid]

“In July 2012, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “The transport ministry plans to allow ultracompact cars to run on public roads in some local areas as early as autumn to encourage the spread of such vehicles, according to sources. The Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry will relax the section of the Road Transport Vehicle Law that regulates safety standards and other rules on the use of vehicles, and apply it to local governments that want to use ultracompact cars as transport for residents and tourists in their areas. The cars have been driven strictly on an experimental basis in limited areas, but the expected regulatory easing is likely to spark proliferation of the vehicles nationwide. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, July 10, 2012]

Ultracompact Cars Revving Up

Automakers such as Nissan Motor Co. and Daihatsu Motor Co. are currently developing microcompact cars. However, as the cars do not fall under any of the five categories stipulated in the Road Transport Vehicle Law, they cannot be driven on public roads without special permission from the land, infrastructure, transport and tourism minister. Thus the government plans to make official regulations for the microcompact cars by creating a new category.

“Yasuaki Kobayashi and Kohei Nakajima wrote in Yomiuri Shimbun, “The spread of ultracompact cars with one or two seats is gaining momentum. Kobot Co., a Fukuoka-based subsidiary of midsize trading company Kowa Co. in Nagoya, is developing a two-seat ultracompact electric car it plans to market to municipal governments next spring. Kobot President Yoshito Serita welcomed the spread of ultracompact cars. "Even small and midsize companies will be able to make cars, which previously could only be manufactured by larger companies," he said. [Source: Yasuaki Kobayashi and Kohei Nakajima, Yomiuri Shimbun, July 24, 2012]

As most ultracompact cars are electric vehicles with fewer parts than gas-powered cars, small and midsize companies with fewer financial resources can join the business without much difficulty. This is encouraging more companies to enter the ultracompact car market. For example, Modi Corp., a prototype car manufacturer in Iwate Prefecture, and the Next Generation EV Society of Gunma University also have begun developing ultracompact cars. [Ibid]

“Many municipalities are interested in promoting ultracompact cars, which are smaller than minicars and suitable for short-distance travel, as a means of transportation for the elderly or in isolated areas. An official of the Fukuoka prefectural government said, "If a new system that supplies them to municipalities is launched, we'd like to lend them to our residents." In a test conducted last autumn in Asakura, Fukuoka Prefecture, about 60 percent of 32 participants who test-drove ultracompact cars on a daily basis said they wanted to use them. For instance, Yukiyasu Maeda, 76, usually drives a midsize sedan to a hospital eight kilometers away from his house once a month. He used an ultracompact car for a half month and found that it was sufficient for his lifestyle. [Ibid]

“Major automakers' opinions on ultracompact cars differ according to their management strategies. Nissan Motor Co., which has worked to promote electric vehicles, supports the spread of ultracompact cars. A Nissan official said the company hoped joint purchases of ultracompact cars by municipalities will lend momentum to their spread. On the other hand, minicar manufacturers say their products, which are inexpensive and have sufficient safety measures, can satisfy customers' needs. [Ibid]

“The greatest challenge for the spread of ultracompact cars is safety. As the body of an ultracompact car is small and light, it is difficult to ensure the same level of safety as minicars or normal-sized cars in a collision. University of Tokyo Prof. Minoru Kamata said: "Ultracompact cars are not suitable for driving on bypasses, where cars go faster. It's necessary to implement safety measures such as allowing the cars to travel mainly in 'Zone 30' areas, where the maximum speed is 30 kilometers per hour.” [Ibid]

Foreign Automobiles in Japan

Not so many domestic luxury cars are made in Japan. That niche is filled largely by European cars makers like BMW and Mercedes Benz. Mercedes, Audi and BMW dominate the market in Japan for cars selling for more than $30,000. Toyota, Honda and Nissan hope to make inroads into this market with their Lexus (Toyota), Acura (Honda) and Infiniti (Nissan) cars. Many Japanese view Japanese cars a boring and not very stylish. BMWs and Mercedes are status symbols. Some people buy large American-made SUVs and vans to express their me first sentiments. Even so, foreign imports account for less than 10 percent of the Japanese market. <

Best-selling imported vehicle brand in Japan in 2009 (units sold, market share): 1) Volkswagen (37,928, 21.24 percent;) 2) BMW (29,090, 16.29 percent); 3) Mercedes (28,740, 16.1 percent). The top-selling foreign car makers in Japan in 2008 were: 1) Volkswagen, for 9th consecutive year, with (40,661 units); 2) Mercedes-Benz (33,868 units); 3) BMW (31,928 units). On the whole foreign car sales fell 17 percent to a 15-year low in 2008. A total of 277,159 foreign cars were imported to Japan in fiscal 2007-2008. The top three sellers were: 1) Volkswagen with sales of 51,619 vehicles for a 19.5 percent market share; 2) BMW with sales of 45,809 vehicles for a 17.3 percent market share; and 3) Mercedes-Benz with sales of 45,428 vehicles for a 17.2 percent market share.

There are lot of top end imported cars in Japan. You see a lot of new BMWs and Mercedes on streets as well as a surprising number of Jaguars, Alfa Romeos, Rolls Royces, Bentleys and Ferraris. Volvos, Peugeots are popular with middle class families. Minis are popular collectors items. There are 130,000 Minis and 200 mini clubs. New versions of the Mini and the Volkswagen Bug have sold well in Japan,

The Big Three U.S. carmakers have only 1 percent of the Japanese market in 1997. But that wasn’t always the case. Ford dominated the car industry in Japan before World War II, selling 75 percent of the cars sold in Japan. In 1939, Ford and General Motors were evicted from Japan and their factories were shut down. Ford now has a major stake in Mazda. GM has stakes in Suzuki and Isuzu and Chrysler owns part of Mitsubishi.

In 2010, foreign car sales rose significantly as foreign carmakers were able to slash prices as result of the rising value of the yen.

A 1931 Bugati Type 41 Royale Sports Coupe was sold in 1990 to Meitec Corporation in Japan in 1990 for $15 million.

Imported Vehicle Sales Rise 23 Percent in 2011 and First Half of 2012

In April 2012, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “Foreign cars took a record share of new cars sold in Japan in fiscal 2011 as last year's megaquake forced domestic makers to decrease operations and more foreign vehicles qualifying for the government's subsidy program for the purchase of eco-friendly cars were imported. Sales of imported cars soared by 22.9 percent to 295,149 units in the fiscal year from the previous year, according to the Japan Automobile Importers Association. This increased the share of imported cars in domestic sales of new cars, excluding minicars, to 9.6 percent, up 1.5 percentage points from the previous year, JAIA said. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, April 7, 2012]

“While many domestic automakers were forced to suspend vehicle production operations after the Great East Japan Earthquake, foreign automakers continued selling new cars in the country, contributing to the huge increase in sales. However, even after domestic automakers recovered most of their domestic production in autumn, sales of imported cars have continued to grow. One major reason for this is believed to be the government's reintroduction of a subsidy of up to 100,000 yen per car for the purchase of eco-friendly vehicles. Foreign automakers also have expanded the product line covered by the subsidy program for eco-car purchases, helping boost their sales from January to March by 30.1 percent from the same period last year. [Ibid]

“Sales of German cars were especially brisk in fiscal 2011. For instance, sales of Volkswagen's small cars, Golf and Polo, were up 43.1 percent, respectively, in the January-March quarter compared to last year. Sales of Mercedes-Benz increased by 43.8 percent due mainly to growth in its C-Class, which was modified last spring. BMW grew by 38.2 percent in the period. [Ibid]

“European automakers also launched low-interest loan and cost-free repair campaigns, taking advantage of the yen's strength against the euro, which also helped perk up sales. "People who switched to Japanese cars for fuel efficiency following the collapse of the Lehman Brothers are back to purchasing imported cars," said Audi Japan President Hiroshi Okita.Imported cars are more expensive than Japanese vehicles with the same engine displacements. However, Okita said an increasing number of consumers are eyeing luxury cars. "More people are becoming aware that imported cars also have good fuel efficiency. Consumers tired of belt-tightening are showing a stronger tendency to buy luxury cars," he said. Domestic automakers have been emphasizing low prices and practicality in marketing their products, but will have to take countermeasures against foreign rivals marketing high-class, eco-friendly cars, observers said. [Ibid]

In July 2012, Jiji Press reported: “Sales of imported foreign-brand vehicles in Japan rose 24 percent from a year before to 118,361 units in the first half of 2012, the Japan Automobile Importers Association said. The surge was backed by the government's subsidy and tax cut programs for environmentally friendly vehicles. [Source: Jiji Press, July 6, 2012]

“By brand, Volkswagen ranked top as sales jumped 20.4 percent to 28,897 units, followed by Mercedes-Benz with sales of 19,669 units, up 29.4 percent. BMW came third with sales of 19,284 units, up 25.1 percent. By vehicle model, Volkswagen's Golf car topped the list with sales of 13,012 units, the association said. [Ibid]

“The Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “Volkswagen cars are continuing to sell well in Japan despite a six-month delivery time for some models, which has been in place since last year. This is partly due to the cost efficiency of Volkswagen engines. The automaker has been protecting its brand image by not cutting prices, despite the euro depreciating against the yen. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, December 7, 2011]

Eight Ferraris, Lamborghini in Million-dollar Car Crash

Douglas Stanglin wrote in USA TODAY: Eight Ferraris, three Mercedes-Benzes and a Lamborghini were involved in a 14-vehicle pileup on a Japanese freeway that could easily cost more than $1 million, the Daily Yomiuri reports. Most of the luxury cars were traveling in a convoy to a gathering of sports car enthusiasts in nearby Hiroshima, the Associated Press reports. The AP says the damage could easily top $1 million in a country where even a used Ferrari can fetch $100,000. The Japanese media put the bill as high as $3.8 million, AFP reports. [Source: Douglas Stanglin, USA TODAY, December 5, 2011]

“Ten people were hospitalized in the midmorning pileup on the Chugoku Expressway in Yamaguchi Prefecture, according to police.Police say they believe one of the Ferraris tried to change lanes, hit the median barrier and spun across the freeway. The other cars crashed while trying to avoid hitting the first car, the newspaper says. By the way, the AFP reports that a Toyota Prius was also banged up in the ordeal. [Ibid]

Lowriders and Decorated Trucks in Japan

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Decorated trucks, known as dekotora, are regarded as a kind of modern folk art in Japan. Some spend hundreds of thousands of dollars customizing their trucks: adding platform-like extensions on the front bumper, placing gabled roofs over the cabs and putting rows of colored lights running along every edge and contour. Inside additions include embroidered upholstery tatami floor panels, and even chandeliers. Some have elaborate paint jobs on the side panels---which include images of dinosaurs, dragons, wildcats, sword-wielding samurai, kimono-clad women and religious imagery---and names that are printed in several places on the truck. Most are working trucks. Truck shows that feature them are held in Aichi Prefecture.

Lowriders, street-hugging cars with hydraulic lifts that are popular among the Latin and black communities in Los Angeles is one of the oddest American fads to catch on in Japan. A typical 1960s Chevy Impala outfit with a lowriding suspension that can make a car jump and down sells for $5,000 to $15,000 in the U.S., but goes for between $25,000 and $35,000 in Japan.

The popularity of lowriders is a result of the importation of rap culture, whose videos often feature low riders. The number of lowriders has increased from 300 in 1992 to 3,000 in 1996. The are clubs, shops, and magazines geared towards lowrider enthusiasts. Brokers who import low-riders from California to Japan say they make about $2,000 on each vehicle.

Many lowrider vehicles are too big for Japan's roads. You rarely see them on the streets and owners need to have them trucked to lowrider gatherings. Many lowrider enthusiasts are blue collar workers who are fascinated by American lowrider culture.

Japanese Carmarkers Dramatically Improve Diesel Technology

Hideki Kishimoto wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun: “Diesel-powered vehicles used to get a bad rap for being noisy, dirty and slow. But they have been getting an image makeover thanks to "clean diesel" that emits less pollution--a change that could shake up the race with eco-friendly hybrid and electric vehicles. At the Tokyo Motor Show in December [2011], there were many "oohs" and "aahs" around the displays of two Mazda Motor Corp. vehicles powered by a 2.2-liter diesel engine--a world first. The fuel-efficient engine can reduce emissions that cause air pollution, without an expensive purifier. [Source: Hideki Kishimoto, Yomiuri Shimbun, February 6, 2011]

“The CX-5 sport-utility vehicle, which went on sale in February 2012, runs on 18.6 kilometers per liter of diesel oil, a fuel cheaper than gasoline. The CX-5 is the most fuel-efficient SUV, including minicar SUVs and hybrid SUVs, and packs as much power as a four-liter gasoline-powered vehicle. The Takeri concept sedan stores energy generated during braking as electricity. According to Mazda, it can travel about 1,500 kilometers on a full tank of fuel. "Diesel vehicles had the shortcomings of being dirty and slow. We've conquered those problems," Mazda President Takashi Yamanouchi said. [Ibid]

“Diesel vehicles and gasoline vehicles produce their power quite differently. In gasoline vehicles, gas is mixed with air, and this mixture is injected into a combustion chamber and ignited. In diesel vehicles, air is compressed until it reaches a high temperature, and diesel oil is then injected into it and burned. Diesel vehicles are powerful--and more fuel-efficient--even when driven at a low speed because their combustion efficiency is better than that of gasoline vehicles. However, making diesel engines smaller deprives them of energy. A diesel engine is very heavy, so making the car body smaller will accentuate this problem. [Ibid]

“However, diesel vehicles emit nitrogen oxide and soot, and they need a big, tough body to handle the volume of air being compressed. They tended to be noisy and had poor acceleration. Diesel oil is obtained with gasoline during the process of refining crude oil. Because Japan cannot consume all the diesel produced here, some is exported. The spread of diesel vehicles in this country will lead to more efficient use of diesel oil. [Ibid]

“In the latter 1990s, European automakers developed cleaner diesel engines that produce less exhaust gases by improving the fuel injection system and using filters. In Europe, fuel-efficient, diesel-powered vehicles have become very popular, accounting for half of new car sales. [Ibid]

“Diesel vehicles are usually about 500,000 yen more expensive than a gasoline-powered version of the same model--but the government is helping to cover this initial extra outlay. In Japan, people who purchase diesel-powered vehicles are eligible to receive subsidies like the ones offered for electric or hybrid vehicles. Owning a diesel vehicle for at least six years can save the driver up to 500,000 yen through subsidies. Nissan's X-Trail, which is priced at 3.14 million yen, can earn a subsidy of 210,000 yen at the time of purchase. [Ibid]

New Car Technology Avoids Pedestrians and Prevents Auto Collisions

Katsufumi Mano and Shigeto Tanaka wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun: “To prevent car accidents and protect pedestrians, automakers are stepping up efforts to develop advanced safety vehicles (ASV) that can detect and avoid pedestrians and other cars. [Source: Katsufumi Mano and Shigeto Tanaka, Yomiuri Shimbun, May 28, 2012]

“To test the progress of recent safety innovations to reduce pedestrian-related accidents, reporters test-drove a Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd.'s car equipped with the Eye Sight system at a parking lot in Mitaka, Tokyo, earlier this month. As the car moved toward a large cushion at a speed of 20 kph, a loud alarm went off. When the car kept moving forward, a slight brake was automatically applied. A second later, a strong brake was applied, and the car stopped about 50 centimeters in front of the cushion. According to the firm, the Eye Sight system recognizes pedestrians and other objects in front of the car with a camera installed inside and applies the brakes when the car approaches the object too closely. [Ibid]

“Fuji Heavy Industries is the only domestic automaker that has developed such a technology to stop cars before a collision. The braking technology to reduce damage from a collision was developed as part of the project to promote ASV, which was initiated by the former Transport Ministry in 1991. The automaker started introducing the system in some models in 2008. The system's upgraded version released in 2010 helps cars stop before crashing when the difference between the speed of the car and the object is 30 kph or less, according to the firm's spokesman. [Ibid]

“The project, which aims to develop "cars that don't cause accidents," has resulted in about 30 technologies that are already in use, including equipment to sound an alarm when a car swerves due to drowsy driving. However, there is a limit to automakers' efforts. "Automatic brake systems may not work when people jump in front of cars, and the sensor's detecting ability declines in bad weather," a ministry official said. [Ibid]

“Automaker officials also said their technologies are primarily designed to support drivers, so almost nothing can be done when a car rams into a pedestrian at full speed. Currently, luxury cars are the main ones equipped with the braking system for reducing crash damage. In some cases, car owners may be asked to pay several hundreds of thousands of yen to install the system. In the case of light vehicles, such as passenger cars, very few models have introduced the braking system. Of 3.9 million new cars produced in 2010, only about 37,000 cars, or less than 1 percent, were equipped with the braking system, according to the transport ministry. [Ibid]

Automobile Safety, See Honda, Toyota, Mazda, Under Economics, Industries

New Pedestrian-Friendly Car Bodies

Katsufumi Mano and Shigeto Tanaka wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun: “Efforts have also been made to develop car bodies designed to reduce the damage to humans should an accident occur. In a large percentage of fatal car accidents, pedestrians died as a result of hitting their heads against the engine through the hood. Therefore, automakers are trying to reduce the risk of fatality by raising the shock absorbency in hoods and widening the space between the engine and the hood. [Source: Katsufumi Mano and Shigeto Tanaka, Yomiuri Shimbun, May 28, 2012]

“The Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry established in 2004 a guideline to protect pedestrians' heads, which stipulates two-thirds of a car's hood should have a structure to prevent pedestrians from suffering from skull fractures or concussion. The ministry guideline prompted automakers to develop new technologies, which spawned a technology designed to prevent pedestrians from hitting their heads against the engine by flipping up the hood from the windshield side upon impact. [Ibid]

“To further encourage advancements in technology by automakers, the ministry in 2011 revised the head protection guideline and established a new measure regarding leg protection. In ancy case, designing car bodies to reduce potential injury to people is not a perfect process. "Situations in car accidents vary greatly, such as which part of the car a pedestrian is hit by or how tall a person is. We can't assure [the design] works all the time," an official of a carmaker said. [Ibid]

New Brake and Accelerator Pedal Designs

Hiroko Tabuchi wrote in the New York Times, “Two pedals, inches apart, one for gas and the other for brakes. For years, a Japanese inventor has argued that this most basic of car designs is dangerously flawed. The side-by-side pedal arrangement, the inventor says, can cause drivers mistakenly to floor the accelerator instead of the brakes, especially under stress. The solution? A single pedal that accelerates the car when pressed with the side of the foot. More to the point, when the pedal is pushed down, it always activates the brakes. [Source: Hiroki Tabuchi, New York Times, August 3, 2010]

“We have a natural tendency to stomp down when we panic,” the inventor, Masuyuki Naruse told the New York Times. “The automakers call it driver error. But what if their design’s all wrong?” Mr. Naruse, 74, is one of a handful of people who have designed combined brake-accelerator pedals in an effort to prevent accidents caused by unintended acceleration, which has come under a spotlight since charges that some Toyota vehicles accelerate without warning. [Ibid]

“In Japan, about 130 cars equipped with Mr. Naruse’s pedal, mostly owned by friends and acquaintances, have been declared street-legal, including Mr. Naruse’s own Mitsubishi Diamante sedan,” Tabuchi wrote. “He holds patents for the Naruse (pronounced NAH-roo-say) Pedal in Japan, the United States and six other countries. Yasuto Ohama, a security company executive whose Toyota Harrier has one of the pedals, said he switched after his foot hit the gas instead of the brakes and he almost struck a bicyclist. “I can never go back,” Mr. Ohama said. “I now have peace of mind, because there’s no mistaking when there’s only one pedal.” [Ibid]

“Mr. Naruse’s design is a unified pedal, shaped to accommodate the entire foot. On the right side is an accelerator bar. At any point, the driver can push down on the pedal to activate the brakes, while automatically releasing the accelerator bar. Mr. Naruse’s pedal, in various versions, has been around for two decades. But until recently his testimonials fell mostly on deaf ears---despite many accidents linked to pedal confusion. [Ibid]

In 2009, nearly 6,700 traffic accidents involving 37 deaths and more than 9,500 injuries were thought to have been caused by drivers in Japan mistakenly pushing the accelerator instead of the brakes, said the Institute for Traffic Accident Research and Data Analysis, a government affiliated group based in Tokyo. Car safety specialists say it is likely that tens of thousands of crashes in the United States have also been caused by pedal errors. In an accident in Santa Monica, Calif., in 2003, a driver believed to have hit the wrong pedal killed 10 people when his car plunged into an outdoor market. [Ibid]

Mr. Naruse told the New York Times Toyota engineers tested a prototype in 2000, but were dissatisfied with the design; the automaker would not comment, saying its research and development efforts were confidential. Ririko Takeuchi, a Tokyo-based spokeswoman for Toyota, said the company could not comment on Mr. Naruse’s pedal design. But she said Toyota “listens to ideas we receive from the public, because we believe there’s always room for improvement.” “If you ask whether the current pedal design is the best we can do, the answer is no,” Ms. Takeuchi said.

Experiments with Brake and Accelerator Pedals

Hiroko Tabuchi wrote in the New York Times, “Since at least the 1980s, researchers have pointed to the propensity for drivers to press the accelerator instead of the brakes. In a 1989 study, Richard A. Schmidt, a psychologist now at the University of California, Los Angeles, described how disruptions to neuromuscular processes can cause the foot to deviate from the intended motion, even slipping from the brake to the accelerator. And when the car accelerates unexpectedly, Mr. Schmidt said, even experienced drivers can panic, “braking” even harder.

In experiments in Japan by Katsuya Matsunaga, an engineering and psychology specialist at Kyushu Sangyo University in Fukuoka City, drivers were asked to switch feet from the accelerator to the brakes on cue, at times while accompanied by startling noises. Subjects under stress sometimes hesitated or found it difficult to switch from one pedal to the other, he said. [Ibid]

“For wider adoption, there would have to be solid proof that drivers used to the old pedal setup can adapt quickly and without error,” Koya Kishida, who specializes in traffic psychology and ergonomics at Chukyo University in Japan, told the New York Times. The current standard pedal arrangement is a function of automotive evolution. Drivers of Ford’s 1908 Model T maneuvered an accelerator lever on the steering column and three pedals: for shifting gears, reversing and braking. Over time, the advent of various manual and automatic transmissions has required different footwork. [Ibid]

'Driverless Driving' Envisioned for Early 2020s

In June 2012, Yomiuri Shimbun, “In just 10 years or so, you may be traveling around comfortably, free from traffic jams and accidents, in a vehicle that drives itself. The Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry will soon embark on a project to realize an "autopilot system" for automatic driving, a system for guiding motor vehicles on expressways without human assistance. The envisioned autopilot system is expected to contribute significantly to such goals as alleviating drivers' fatigue, preventing road accidents and easing traffic congestion. It would be for vehicles referred to as self-driving cars capable of sensing their environment and navigating by themselves, with people not required to perform any mechanical operation besides choosing their destinations. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, June 25, 2012]

“The ministry envisages an autonomous vehicle system in which, after leaving your home, you enter an interchange of a nearby expressway while manually operating your car. When pulling into the expressway's lane exclusively for the autopilot system, you change your driving mode to "automatic driving" and input your destination onto the system. You would take your hands and feet off the steering wheel, gas pedal and brake. You would return to driving on your own only after reaching an intersection near your destination. Until then, you would leave all driving tasks to the self-steering system, comfortably enjoying whatever activity you like. If materialized, the system would prevent human error from causing road accidents in the automatic driving areas. [Ibid]

“The autopilot driving system would also enable the elderly, who sometimes have difficulty making quick judgments and keeping attentive while driving, to use expressways safely, according to the ministry. The ministry said about 60 percent of traffic jams on expressways are due to vehicles slowing down on ascending slopes. By having vehicles travel up slopes without decelerating, by means of the autopilot system, traffic congestion would be eased significantly, the ministry said. It would also reduce carbon dioxide emissions. [Ibid]

“Some motor vehicles in practical use already have such functions as using radar to maintain a certain distance from the vehicle in front of them. There also are vehicles that sound a warning when they are about to swerve from a lane for such reasons as the driver dozing behind the wheel. Meanwhile, antenna networks for transmitting information to drivers about traffic congestion and potential accidents on expressways were completed across the country in 2011 the ministry said.A ministry official said, "The planned autopilot system, in combination with the road information transmission system already in place, will make it technically possible to realize driverless driving in about 10 years.” [Ibid]

Obstacles to Creating a 'Driverless Driving' System

The Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “There are, however, a number of hurdles that must be cleared before this can happen. Among them are how to design a central control center in charge of administering traffic on expressway lanes exclusively for autopilot vehicles, and the feasibility of using an automatic tracking function to have one vehicle guide a number of others.It would also be extremely expensive if roads have to be built exclusively for autopilot vehicles, raising the problem of how to fund such construction, the ministry said. [Ibid]

“Furthermore, there is the question of how to devise rules to deal with accidents involving an autopilot system, the officials said. A key problem is which side--the driver, or the developer or administrator of the system--should be held responsible. [Ibid]

“Toshiyuki Inagaki, a University of Tsukuba professor who specializes in risk management engineering, said, "To enhance the safety of motor vehicles, it will be necessary to heighten the quality of the arrangements to have machines help people drive. The development of an autopilot driving system, however, will give rise to new questions, such as the responsibility for accidents involving the system," Inagaki said. "It is indispensable to design the system as carefully as possible based on in-depth discussions.” [Ibid]

Image Sources: Ray Kinnane except parking machines (Doug Mann Photomann) and Smart Car (exorsyst blog)

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2009 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated August 2012

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