TOKYO -- As global automakers race to put long-range electric vehicles on highways amid stricter emission laws, Japanese companies are taking a niche approach and steering towards cheaper, tiny runabouts to make costly battery technology more accessible.
At the Tokyo auto show that starts on Thursday, Toyota, Nissan and others are due to show prototypes of one- and two-seater EVs designed for short distances with limited top speeds.
They are betting such EVs are best-placed for Japan's narrow streets, cramped parking spaces and rapidly aging society, and that the vehicles will eventually catch on globally too as the elderly population grows. But the jury is still out on whether these vehicles will work overseas.
The Japanese strategy is in contrast to that of General Motors, Volkswagen Group and other global players who are focusing on normal-sized passenger vehicles, including SUVs, to compete with the top-selling Tesla Model 3 EV sedan.
Toyota's new BEV seats two people and has a top speed of just 60 kilometers (37 miles) per hour and a range of 100 kilometers (62 miles) on a single charge. At a length of 24900 mm, it is a little over half the size of the Tesla Model 3.
Japan's top automaker, which pioneered green car technologies with the Prius gasoline hybrid more than 20 years ago, has long argued that EVs are best suited for short trips due to high battery costs.
It also believes lower-emission hybrids and zero-emissions hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, like its second-generation Mirai, work better for longer-distance driving.
"It's difficult to apply the same technology to all driving needs," said Akihiro Yanaka, a manager at Toyota's EV product development and planning department, at a preview for the ultra-compact BEV, which goes on sale in Japan in late 2020.
"So, if we can leverage the strengths of battery electric technology into smaller vehicles, we'd like to initially focus on that application."