An automotive EVolution

Electric vehicles are becoming more efficient and more popular


APRIL 2021 Industry Perspectives / Text by Toby Waters 

Last December, Governor of Tokyo Yuriko Koike set a goal for all new cars sold in Tokyo to be either hybrid or electric vehicles (EV) by 2030, and for all new motorcycles to be gasoline-free by 2035. It’s an ambitious target, but consumers today are increasingly eager to buy EVs — and businesses in Japan and across Europe are stepping up to meet the demand.

Driving progress

Although domestic Japanese automotive companies have their own EV offerings, high-profile European car brands have been successfully delivering their own environmentally friendly cars for many years. One example is German luxury car manufacturer Audi. However, it is only recently that European brands have felt confident that their EVs will be able to drive overall sales in Japan, according to Philipp Noack, president of Audi Japan.

“Due to limited model offerings, insufficient charging infrastructure, and high prices, the EV market in Japan remained sluggish for many years,” he says. “Recently, however, consumer interest has been stimulated by the variety of EV models offered by import brands, bolstered by the government declaring its goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2050. It aims to do this in part by increasing subsidies to EVs when they are charged using renewable energy.”

Audi manufactures EVs under the “e-tron” name, and launched its first fully electric model, the e-tron Sportback, in Japan last autumn. It has been lauded for its smooth acceleration and quiet engine, and it was named Technology Car of the Year by the 2021–2022 Japan Car of the Year committee. It has proven to be highly popular in Japan — to the extent that Audi will soon be expanding the range of e-tron cars available here.

“Customers are highly interested in Audi e-tron models, as proven by the high number of visitors to our e-tron model webpage and people wanting to test drive it at the Audi House of Progress Tokyo showroom,” Noack says. “This autumn, we will launch the four-door grand tourismo e-tron GT in Japan, followed by the compact size Q4 e-tron and Q4 e-tron Sportback models in early 2022.”

The engine of change

Of course, creating an energy-efficient EV is more complicated than simply replacing an internal combustion engine with an electric one. Höganäs Japan is a developer and manufacturer of powdered metals that can produce more efficient, lighter traction and auxiliary electric motors, meaning that EVs can go further on a single battery charge. If their materials were used in all EVs, the effect in reducing greenhouse gas emissions could be enormous, says Carl-Gustav Eklund, the representative director and president.

“We aim to be a major material supplier for EV motors. Through our design support and highly efficient materials, we want to contribute to the creation of more energy efficient EVs and do our part in combating climate change,” he says. “Our goal is to be a world leader in powder-based materials for a new generation of energy-efficient electric motors. We also make materials that are used for components in renewable energy production.”

EVs are ultimately to be a more environmentally sound means of transportation than conventional cars. However, it will take more than just advances in technology to help EVs realise their potential in the fight against climate change — at least in Japan.

“The EV market is divided into two parts. The first is the battery EV (BEV) market, and the second is the hybrid electric vehicle (HEV) market, which comprises both plug-in and full HEV. Japan is a world leader in HEVs, and already over 30% of vehicles sold are HEVs,” Eklund says. “But the country is a bit behind when it comes to BEVs. Energy used by BEVs is also generally not renewable, meaning driving a BEV can actually lead to more CO2 pollution. Japan needs to expand its renewable electric energy sector much faster.”

Easy rider

Although the potential for EVs to fight climate change cannot be understated, the improvements in automotive technology are not limited to car engines and materials. Comfort for the driver and passengers is also an important consideration for anyone buying a car, as Brose Japan understands.

“The requirements of drivers and passengers for both the exteriors and interiors of EVs are rapidly evolving,” says Olivier Fidry, president of Brose Group’s East Asia division. “Through electrification and digitalisation of our systems, Brose can offer completely new experiences when interacting with a car.”

Brose has worked hard to develop technology that makes just sitting in a car — and even getting into one — feel satisfying and enjoyable.

“Our doors have radar sensors, so they can open and close using a remote control, smartphone, or gestures with no risk of hitting something,” Fidry explains. “Our interior concepts make it possible to work, relax, and be entertained in your car. In addition to electronically controlled seats, the positions of screens playing personalised audio/video and the layout of storage areas can be changed automatically, and the flow of air adjusts according to where people are sitting.”

Other Brose technology increases energy efficiency and overall performance.

“Brose develops thermal management components — such as cooling fan modules, electric climate compressors, and HVAC blowers — that help EVs to optimise energy management and driving range,” Fidry says. “Thanks to our thermal management systems, the energy consumption efficiency of EVs can improve by up to 20%, and driving ranges can improve up to 30%.”

Accelerating investment

The increasing popularity of EVs is not just confined to Japan, and countries will need to work together to make the most of this new technology and the opportunities it presents. In Germany, the North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) region has emerged as a prime location for German and Japanese companies to work closely together to shape the next generation of automobiles.

“Japanese companies — such as Toyota (which recently introduced the FCV MIRAI II model in Germany), Yazaki, DENSO, and other suppliers — are active in NRW,” says Georg Löer, representative director and president of NRW.Global Business. “Marelli, which merged with Japan’s Calsonic Kansei in 2019, recently decided to build a factory for high-voltage EV motors in Cologne.

As the top investment location in the country with the second highest number of registered EVs, NRW is an attractive location for EV development for carmakers from all over the world. As Löer explains, the confidence that companies have in the region is leading to a virtuous cycle of investment, reinforcing its position as a European hub in this sector.

“Earlier this year, the US automaker Ford announced that it would build a new model EV in Cologne and make an investment in NRW of €1 billion. This will be Ford’s first EV to be built in Europe and will share the platform of the VW’s ID 3 EV,” he says. “As a result of this announcement, we’re seeing increased interest from a number of Japanese automotive suppliers.

“NRW.Global Business not only supports Japanese companies in their investment activities in Germany, but also NRW-based companies — such as dSPACE, Phoenix Contact, Harting, and StreetScooter — in their trade and market expansion activities in Japan by connecting them to the relevant stakeholders,” he continues.

There are still many miles to go before EVs supplant conventional cars as the dominant mode of personal transport in Japan. But as they become more affordable and efficient, Höganäs’s Eklund is confident that it is only a matter of time.

“We can see a real shift in consumer sentiments. Today, they care much more about the environment, and climate change,” he says. “There has also been increased awareness in the EU, the US, and now in Japan, of the need to be carbon neutral and reduce fossil fuel consumption. This represents a big change, even compared to just two years ago.”