The Yomiuri ShimbunShinya Omori, president of SC-ABeam Automotive Consulting, spoke with The Yomiuri Shimbun about the prospect of electric vehicles (EVs) in the near future. The following is excerpted from the interview.
Shift to environmented values
The Yomiuri Shimbun: How would you describe the emergence of electric vehicles in the history of automobile development?
Omori: The shift toward EVs has been attracting global attention in the automobile market. As technological innovation progresses in the digital field, how will the future evolution of automobiles unfold?
Modern automobiles differ from other industrial goods as they have seen no “reinvention,” despite the fact that it has been over a century since their creation. To give an example of reinvention, clocks have moved on from being purely mechanical to using quartz. Although vehicles have been improved upon over the years, they have seen no fundamental transformation.
However, cars are beginning to welcome an age of reinvention. One aspect of this reinvention is EVs.
Cars have always been mechanical in nature, but we are now starting to increasingly see the introduction of more electronic elements. This is because of all the advances that have been made in the transition from mechanical control to electric control the introduction of electronic systems such as the Global Positioning System, telecommunication technology, sensors and advanced driver assistance systems. This has all led to a dramatic change in what people are looking for in cars.
People once wanted their cars to be high-powered and to look cool, but now it’s all about safety, comfort and the environment.
In terms of safety, people are seeking automatic driving where the car is driven by an installed system rather than by a person. On the comfort side, cars are gradually becoming giant bundles of sensors, even lowering the air conditioner temperature if the driver’s hands are sweating on the steering wheel. However, what seems to be more important than both of these is the environmental aspect.
At the 21st Session of the Conference of the Parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP21) held in Paris in December 2015, a goal was set that the world should aim to limit the global average temperature rise to less than 2 C when compared to pre-industrial levels.
Q: Do you think placing importance on the environment has accelerated the development of EVs?
A: This COP21 agreement has led to a growing pressure on cars that emit a large amount of greenhouse gases. As solutions to tackle the issues of global warming and air pollution are sought, EVs have now become an alternative to conventional cars.
The Zero Emission Vehicle program in the state of California, home to the largest automobile market in the United States, is one of the reasons why EVs have been attracting attention. Under the program, manufacturers have to sell over a fixed number of eco-friendly cars.
From 2018, the program has become even stricter and hybrid cars, which use both a [combustion] engine and an electric motor and are a type of car that Japan specializes in, are no longer recognized as eco-friendly cars. This is another factor that has been driving the push toward the switch to EVs.
Opportunity for other nations
Q: What kind of industrial policies have countries been taking concerning EVs?
A: Another reason for the increased focus on EVs is related to the industrial policies of major world powers.
The electrification of cars is a great opportunity for countries that do not have a strong automobile industry. There are some countries that appear to be banking on this “game change.”
Last summer, both France and Britain announced that they will ban the sale of gasoline- and diesel-powered cars by 2040. They intend to strengthen their automobile industries, which have been dominated by Germany, by leading in vehicle electrification.
China will impose domestic production and sales quotas on “new energy vehicles,” such as EVs, on automobile manufacturers from 2019.
A: China is aiming to become an “EV superpower.” In 2016, half of worldwide sales of EVs took place in China. The growing problem of air pollution since industrialization is not the sole reason that China is promoting EVs. They think of it as a way to expand their automobile industry. It may be difficult to create cars with engines that require about 30,000 components, but it is much easier to enter the market for EVs, which are said to require about 10,000 components.
2030 to see battery boom
Q: So, how will the spread of electric vehicles develop in the future?
A: It is expected that there will be two stages to the spread of EVs in the future.
It is likely that the growth of EVs will temporarily slow down in 2020. Although governments around the world have been offering subsidies for the purchase of EVs, this money will run out. In addition, if the electricity that powers the vehicle relies on thermal power generation that uses coal as fuel, then this will not help the air become cleaner and people will raise this as an issue.
The next turning point will be in 2030. At present, lithium ion batteries are mostly used in vehicles. Compared to these batteries, the “all-solid-state batteries” currently in development have a shorter charging time and a larger capacity. It is expected that the distance that EVs will be able to travel between charges will increase with the use of these batteries. When the second generation of solid-state batteries comes out around 2030, this will lead to real growth.
Q: How should Japan utilize its strengths?
A: Japan was the first to succeed in the mass production of hybrid vehicles and created the market for them. It is a fact that Japan was right at the forefront of vehicle electrification. I think Japan can utilize manufacturing skills not found in any other countries when it comes to EVs, too.
The U.S. carmaker Tesla Inc., which was established in 2003, succeeded at first by focusing on creating high-end vehicles, but they have no experience in making affordable cars and are struggling to make cheap yet good-quality cars.
Although it is easy to enter the EV market, making a good EV is a whole other ballgame.
The technology of manufacturing good products that meet consumer needs is the foundation of Japan. I believe what is most important is that [manufacturers] devote themselves to producing high-quality EVs, with special value only brought by them, that cannot be imitated by newcomers in the market.
Q: How does the popularity of the sharing economy affect the car industry?
A: We must not forget that cars are transforming from something that we “possess” to something that we “use.” Even if the number of [individual] car sales does not increase, the need for ridesharing and public transportation will. Cars are not something that you save up to purchase and then store away in a garage. People want to experience something wonderful by driving them. There is a need for Japanese car manufacturers to develop their cars with this point in mind as well.
— This interview was conducted by Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer Tomoki Matsubara.
■ Shinya Omori / SC-ABeam Automotive Consulting President
Graduated from the School of Political Science and Economics at Waseda University in 1985. Joined Sumitomo Corp., where he worked in the automobile-related business for about 30 years. He took up his current position in May 2014. He is 56 years old.Speech