In Japan, the EV Story is ‘Freezer Fear,’ Not Range Anxiety

Power outages boost the electric vehicle business

Here’s what the Japanese wonder about electric vehicles: What’s with all this range anxiety in America? Who needs to travel more than 100 miles in a day anyway?

Most urban Japanese simply don’t drive so often or so far. Because most people commute by rail (in greater Tokyo, more than 80 percent of journeys are by electric train), many cars spend all week garaged, emerging only on Saturday after a shampoo and massage. Even then, few travel more than 60 miles in a weekend.

If they do go farther afield, the Japanese tend to stop hourly at expressway rest areas (all equipped with EV charging stations). So they look perplexed when I ask, “Why stop so often? In Canada, if we didn’t go at least two hours we’d never get there.” Maybe Canadians just have bigger bladders.

Even more mystifying is why people in Japan give a flying fig tree about fuel economy. If you only burn 5 liters of gas a week—just 1.3 gallons—and you spend 2,000 bucks extra on a hybrid, how can you ever hope to recover the added cost?

2013 Honda Fit EV charging port

In fact, that equation of capital cost versus fuel savings is the critical question facing EVs and fuel cell vehicles worldwide. Even with cheaper gas, it’s easy to make a compelling case for taxis and delivery vans. But for private cars used on average only two hours a day, where’s the rationale?

The compelling case for EVs was revealed with a jolt on March 11, 2011, as a massive quake and tsunami devastated northeastern Japan and severely rattled Tokyo. Two things you can expect in such a disaster. First, cracked water mains and loss of pump power mean taps soon go dry—which is why your first move should be to fill every container in the house. Second, the electric grid is likely to go down.

Candles can provide light when that happens, and many Japanese households have battery-ignited kerosene heaters. Living out in a forest I’m even better prepared with a woodstove and two cords of hardwood out back. The big worry is the contents of the fridge and freezer, which quickly spoil without power. Less so if you live in a Tokyo apartment since you can likely eat the contents of your tiny freezer in a day or two. But out here in the countryside most people have big freezers stuffed with fish, veggies, and chunks of wild boar that neighbors bring around. So after March 11 we were gripped by “Freezer Fear.”

Toyota Prius Tsutsumi plant solar panels closeup

Since then, solar panels have continued to sprout on rooftops all over our rural area southeast of Tokyo. Marginal farmland and even golf courses are now covered with vast solar arrays. But even with panel prices that continue to drop and “feed-in tariffs” that allow sales of excess power to the grid, the economics are still challenging for homeowners: It will take 20 to 25 years to recoup the investment. And if the sun doesn’t shine after an earthquake, the freezer is still vulnerable.

Here’s where an EV starts to look good. If a rooftop solar array generates power to run both your car and your house, it should pay for itself faster. The equation looks even better if your costly EV battery can be used to shift power from sunlit hours to nighttime. That’s now possible with systems from Nissan and Honda that convert DC from the EV battery to AC and connect to the household system, solar panels, and the grid. Even if the grid’s down and the sun don’t shine, Nissan claims a fully charged 24-kilowatt-hour Leaf battery can run a typical Japanese home for 48 hours—longer if you light with candles.

My ambition is to go one step further to full disaster-resilience by replacing town water with a well and a gravity-fed tank on the hill behind the house. The pump would be solar-powered and kick in whenever there was excess energy.

2015 Honda Fit Hybrid Japan spec front right side

The point is that, although not yet really price-competitive with conventional cars, EVs now make sense if mated with inexpensive home solar panels, especially here in Japan where preparation for natural disasters is an overriding concern.

Still, the current equation may shift quickly, what with research and development equivalent to the 1960s space race going into battery technology. Whoever wins may bag an immense prize with applications in everything from smartphones to EVs. And it’s not as if they need to make a Moore’s Law leap: just double the power-to-weight ratio and slash the manufacturing cost in half. Apart from the batteries, EVs are dirt-cheap and dead simple to make: no heavy engine block, few moving parts, no lubricants, no transmission, no gas tank. The motors can even go in the wheels, making them simple to swap out.

What I crave, though, beyond disaster resilience, is complete energy independence—individual not national. Right now, I pay the equivalent of $200 a month to Tokyo Electric Power, the company that wantonly mismanaged the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant and lied about its meltdown. I don’t want to pay another yen to them or to the Saudis who supply most of Japan’s motor fuel. EVs? Bring ’em on!

Harris is a Canadian freelance writer based in Japan, where a steering wheel is called a handle and the turn signal is a winker.

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