One hundred years have passed since Henry Ford released the Ford Model T in 1908. Although vehicles have evolved in terms of safety, clean emissions and comfort, the basic principle that vehicles are driven by gasoline engines (or diesel engines) remained unchanged.
However, in recent years, vehicles are in the midst of huge waves of changes, with the shifts of drive systems from internal-combustion engines to electric motors and control systems from mechanical operation to software operation.
Vehicles, which have been perfected to some extent over the past 100 years, are taking a new step toward the next 100 years of evolution. Behind this evolution are the environmental issues represented by global warming and the social need to achieve zero traffic accident casualties.
'The century of electric cars' has started
Electric-driven vehicles such as hybrid cars and electric cars in the past were not widely accepted because of the prices higher than conventional vehicles. However, the status of electric vehicles is changing due to unprecedented escalation of gasoline prices, which now exceed ¥180/L (as of early July 2008, ≠ US$1.73). In fact, sales of Toyota's second-generation Prius, released about five years ago, are increasing substantially in 2008 compared with the previous year.
In addition to escalating gasoline prices, the growing recognition of the seriousness of global warming is another factor. Prior to the Hokkaido Toyako Summit in July 2008, Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda announced his "Fukuda Vision," in which he proposed to cut CO2 emissions by 14% by 2020 and 60-80% by 2050 compared with 2005 levels.
Nissan Motor Co Ltd changed its whole attitude, responding to the growing interest in environmental issues. Nissan was negative about the efforts for electric-driven vehicles until recently and cancelled commercialization of hybrid vehicles, anticipating limited sales due to high-cost.
However, the company announced that it would commercialize electric cars in 2010 in "Nissan GT2012," a new business plan covering the companies direction until 2012. The plan was released in May 2008 to express the company's commitment "to be a global leader in zero-emission vehicles."
Automotive Energy Supply Corp (AESC), a fifty-fifty joint venture established by Nissan and the NEC Group in line with Nissan's electric vehicle commercialization plan, announced that it will start production of Li-ion secondary batteries in 2009 and they will be used in forklifts for small businesses as the first step. AESC Li-ion secondary batteries will also be employed in electric cars manufactured by Nissan.
Lithium Energy Japan, funded and established in December 2007 by GS Yuasa Corp, Mitsubishi Corp and Mitsubishi Motors Corp, will also start mass production of Li-ion secondary batteries. The company will manufacture 200,000 cells in the first year and half of them will be used in "iMiEV" electric vehicles to be released in 2009 by Mitsubishi Motors, while the rest will be sold for industrial use.
Sanyo Denki Co Ltd, the world's largest manufacturer of small Li-ion secondary battery for digital devices, will also introduce a mass production line of Li-ion secondary batteries for hybrid vehicles by March 2009 and invest ¥80 billion in total by 2015 to expand the production capacity to 10 million units per month.
Meanwhile, Toshiba Corp will expand the operation to a ¥100 billion business by 2015. Toshiba started mass production of fast-charging Li-ion secondary battery "SCiB" in March 2008,
Toyota's plug-in hybrid based on the "Prius." Plug-in hybrid vehicles, mounted with Li-ion batteries and intended for fleet users, will be released in 2010.
At the "Toyota Environment Forum" held in June 2008, the company announced its plans including, (1) Plug-in hybrid vehicles mounted with Li-ion batteries and intended for fleet users that will be released by 2010, (2) A "battery research division" that will be established in June 2008 to promote research and development of a revolutionary next-generation battery that exceeds Li-ion secondary batteries in performance and (3) Panasonic EV Energy, a joint venture established by Toyota Motor Co and Matsushita Electric Industrial Co Ltd, which will start small-lot production of Li-ion secondary batteries in 2009 and go into full-scale production in 2010.
Honda Motor Co Ltd, which is not positive about involvement in Li-ion secondary battery production, has been strengthening its efforts for hybrid and fuel cell vehicles. The company will release a "new hybrid" in Japan, the US and Europe at the beginning of 2009, expecting sales of 200,000 units per year in the world.
It also plans to increase the number of small-class hybrid models and increase the sales of such models to approximately 500,000 units per year by early 2010s.
Honda also started production of new fuel cell vehicle "FCX Clarity" in June 2008. The production amount is 200 vehicles every three years, which is comparatively small, but the model boasts attractive features that only fuel cell vehicles can achieve, including the exclusively-designed platform and body, the low and short bonnet and the drivability achieved by the motor that generates high torque at low speed.