By Hiroko Kono / Yomiuri Shimbun Senior WriterLaunched seven years ago in an unprecedented bid to popularize electric vehicles (EVs) in a particular region, the “carbon-free island” policy adopted by Yakushima island in Kagoshima Prefecture has hit an impasse. Driving an EV around the island to identify the cause of the problem, I discovered what is needed to popularize the vehicles in Japan (see below).
‘Only one EV left’
Driving along the island’s perimeter road, which is slightly more than 100 kilometers around, the mountains rise before my eyes. There are over 40 mountains that exceed 1,000 meters. In the middle, one can find a primeval forest with Yakusugi cedars, including the Jomonsugi cedar estimated to be between 2,170 and 7,200 years old. In 1993, the forest became the first UNESCO World Natural Heritage site registered in Japan.
I got into the island’s only EV rental car, a Nissan Leaf available to guests of the Seaside Hotel Yakushima, and headed for the Shiratani Unsuikyo forest, which is said to have inspired the animated film “Princess Mononoke.”
Cruise range nerves
The vehicle had no problem with the continuous curves and steep inclines on the road. When it accelerated, there was no feeling of the car “going for it” that one gets in a gasoline car. However, the “available cruise range” display in front of the driver decreased rapidly.
Although the gauge read 143 kilometers when I left, by the time I reached the entrance to Unsuikyo — about 10 kilometers from our starting point — it said 40 kilometers remained. I turned around and told myself, “It’s OK, I’m less than 40 kilometers from the hotel.” As I descended the mountain the available range increased, and by the time I reached the perimeter road, it read 100 kilometers.
The available range is calculated using recent electricity use, distance traveled and available battery life. While driving up a mountain one’s foot is always on the accelerator, so the calculation results in a rapidly decreasing number. When descending, one need only apply the brake on occasion to make it down the hill, so the available range is recalculated using these conditions.
This point is probably one of the reasons for the decline in demand. The Nissan Rent-a-Car’s Yakushima Airport branch stopped renting EVs last spring. Manager Koji Nagahama sounded disappointed as he said tourists complained of being “afraid to explore freely” and asked to change to gasoline cars.
20% to 40% subsidy
The Kagoshima prefectural government began offering EV subsidies to Yakushima seven years ago. The entire island is mountainous, but there is only one tunnel, which is 71 meters long — reflecting the priority islanders place on preserving the local environment.
Most of the electricity consumed on the island is produced by hydropower. The island’s per capita carbon footprint is one-third of the national average, with automobiles being the largest source of emissions.
Under the project, EV purchases are partially subsidized for individuals and businesses, with 20 percent to 40 percent of the purchase expenses being funded by the central and prefectural governments. In the seven years up until the end of last year, a total of 203 EVs were purchased.
However, things hit a wall. Demand waned and EV purchases didn’t expand on a large scale.
This was particularly true for rental cars. A total of 10 electric vehicles were introduced by three rent-a-car agencies and one hotel, but now only one of the EVs is still in service.
The prefectural government has placed a total of six high-speed charging machines at four locations on the island that anyone can use for free.
“It’s fast and quiet, so I don’t want to return to a gas-powered car,” a 48-year-old driver said while charging his car at a charging point in the prefectural government’s Yakushima office. “However, the number of charging points is limited, and most of them can’t be used after 5 p.m. I think that rental car use will increase if more machines are available in easy-to-use locations.”
According to the prefecture, each high-speed charging machine costs over ¥5 million to install. Of the existing six machines, three were donated by Mitsubishi Motors Corp. and Nissan Motor Co. Currently there are no plans to increase the number.
However, the idea of making the island a place where tourists can drive a variety of EV rental cars has been suggested and is currently being considered.
More charging points needed
EVs are attracting worldwide attention as the most promising of ecologically friendly vehicles. What can we learn from the Yakushima project, to help popularize EVs throughout the country?
Waseda University Prof. Yasuhiro Daisho said, “People are afraid of running out of electricity.” There lies the key to popularizing electric vehicles.
EVs mostly need to be charged at home and that takes quite some time. If their batteries run low while out, drivers can use high-speed charging points available at rest stops on expressways, for example. Advances in battery technology are remarkable, but it will take more time before dramatic increases in the available cruise range of EVs are seen.
Daisho continued: “There are approximately 75 million cars and around 30,000 gas stations in Japan, meaning that one station can service 2,500 cars. But this is because it only takes 90-100 seconds to fill up a gas tank. For EVs, more charging points will be required.”
Nippon Charge Service LLC — an organization made up of four automakers — is promoting a network of charging machines, while encouraging expressway operators and commercial facilities to install machines. Currently, 18,800 machines are available, with 5,600 of those being high-speed charging models, where a vehicle can be charged for a maximum of 30 minutes per use.
A spokesperson for NCS said, “They’re placed at intervals of about 70 kilometers, so people can drive without having to worry about running out of electricity.”
However, there is currently only one charging machine at each location. According to the GoGoEV website for EV users, there have been “traffic jams” at the charging points at expressway rest stops, as well as problems with users’ manners and the lack of waiting areas. Solutions to these issues are being intensely discussed.
As EV use continues to increase, what is really needed? It would be a great help if the number of charging machines were to increase and there was a service informing users of whether the machines are occupied and allowing them to make reservations. I hope local governments and people in tourism-related businesses will devise new ways for EV drivers to enjoy the experience, rather than just seeking to match the convenience of gasoline cars.
■EV popularization in Japan
In the country, 160,000 electric vehicles and electric-powered plug-in hybrid models have been sold. The central government’s goal is for this to reach up to 1 million by 2020. According to the Kagoshima prefectural government, the 203 EVs introduced with national and prefectural subsidies account for 2 percent of vehicles on the island, excluding trucks and buses. The penetration rate of EVs throughout the country — calculated by dividing the number of EVs in Japan by the total number of vehicles owned — was 0.1 percent as of the end of fiscal 2015.