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After Disaster Hit Japan, Electric Cars Stepped Up

WITH deep-tread tires and ample ground clearance, a rugged 4-wheel-drive Hummer or Jeep might seem the best choice for navigating through the wrecked cities of northeastern Japan. The areas pummeled by the earthquake and tsunami in March would surely be inhospitable for an electric vehicle.

Residents travel on the opened road in front of the 4,724-tonne freighter "M.V. Asia Symphony", grounded by the recent tsunami in Kamaishi, Iwate prefecture on May 6, 2011.
Toshifumi Kitamura | AFP | Getty Images
Residents travel on the opened road in front of the 4,724-tonne freighter "M.V. Asia Symphony", grounded by the recent tsunami in Kamaishi, Iwate prefecture on May 6, 2011.

Yet in the days and weeks after the horrific one-two punch of natural disasters, wispy battery-electric cars — engineered for lightness and equipped with tires designed for minimal rolling resistance — proved their mettle.

These welterweight sedans, including models from Mitsubishi and Nissan, turned out to be the vehicles that got through — not because of any special ability to claw their way over mountains of debris, but because they were able to “refuel” at common electrical outlets.

With oil refineries out of commission and clogged roadways slowing deliveries, finding gasoline had become a challenge. Shortages were so acute that Japan’s Self-Defense Forces had to truck in gasoline; donations of diesel fuel were accepted from China.

Yet in Sendai, about 250 miles northeast of Tokyo, and other cities ravaged by the earthquake, electricity returned within days. Taking stock of the situation, the president of Mitsubishi Motors, Osamu Masuko, offered dozens of his company’s egg-shaped i-MiEV (pronounced “eye-meeve”) electric cars to affected cities.

Despite their image as light-duty runabouts best suited for trips to a nearby shopping mall, the electric vehicles were immediately put to use. They were pressed into service ferrying supplies to refugee centers, schools and hospitals, and taking doctors, city workers and volunteers on their rounds.

While the i-MiEVs could not help out with tasks like hauling building materials or towing stranded vehicles, the assistance from Mitsubishi was much appreciated. In all, 89 i-MiEVs went to the recovery effort, including 34 to Miyagi Prefecture, 33 to Fukushima Prefecture and 18 to Iwate Prefecture.

“There was almost no gas at the time, so I was extremely thankful when I heard about the offer,” said Tetsuo Ishii, a division chief in the environmental department in Sendai, which also got four Nissan Leaf electric cars. “If we hadn’t received the cars, it would have been very difficult to do what we needed to.”

Mr. Ishii and other officials in Sendai assigned the cars strategically. Two were used to bring food and supplies to the 23 remaining refugee centers in the city, while two others served doctors. Education officials have been using another two vehicles to inspect schools for structural damage. Others helped deliver supplies to kindergartens around the city or were loaned to volunteer groups.

Once the most pressing needs are met, the city may use the cars to help in the cleanup of damaged homes, as fuel shortages still limit the availability of trucks. For now, though, the cars are driven an average of 30 to 45 miles each day, about half the distance that they can be driven on a full charge.

“One charge is perfect for us, because it allows us to drive around during the day with no trouble,” Mr. Ishii said. “We’re not that big of a city.”

Most of the cars, he said, returned each night to city hall, where they were recharged at 200-volt outlets. Fast-charging stations, which replenish batteries to 80 percent of capacity within 30 minutes, are used where available. Standard 100-volt outlets can also be used, but the recharge then takes more than 12 hours.

Mitsubishi's electric vehicle i-miev have been used in the wrecked cities in northeastern Japan not because of any special ability to claw their way over mountains of debris, but because they were able to “refuel” at common electrical outlets.
Getty Images
Mitsubishi's electric vehicle i-miev have been used in the wrecked cities in northeastern Japan not because of any special ability to claw their way over mountains of debris, but because they were able to “refuel” at common electrical outlets.

Slightly over five feet high and less than five feet wide, the i-MiEV is cozy, to say the least, and at just 2,400 pounds it is relatively light. Its battery, the size of a tatami mat and weighing about 400 pounds, is under the floor, which helps give the car a lower center of gravity.

The cars’ unexpected sturdiness and utility has pleased Mr. Masuko, who, like other automobile executives, has been battling skeptics who see electric vehicles as expensive and impractical.

“I am most impressed when I hear the words, ‘I felt electric vehicles were unreliable at first, but now, the vehicles are being integrated into daily life,’ ” he wrote in an e-mail. “I am so glad I heard that our electric vehicles are contributing to the recovery of the affected areas.”

In addition to donations from automakers, others cities have loaned their E.V.’s to the relief effort. For instance, on March 15, Soichi Kataoka, the mayor of Soja, which is about 600 miles southwest of Sendai, lent one of the city’s i-MiEVs to the Association of Medical Doctors in Asia for their medical relief work in the Tohoku region. It took four days to get the car to Tohoku.

The visibility of the E.V.’s around Tohoku may provide a ray of hope to automakers coping with far greater challenges. Japan’s automakers are only just finishing repairs to damaged factories. The companies are also struggling to obtain key components, like computer chips, from suppliers whose factories were also affected.

Some production resumed in April, but at much reduced levels as carmakers ration their parts inventories. Toyota said it did not expect to resume full production until the end of this year.

Sales of E.V.’s were just starting to take hold before the crisis. In addition to other matters, consumers are concerned about cost. The i-MiEV’s suggested retail price in Japan before government subsidies is nearly four million yen, about $48,000. (The first deliveries to the United States, where the car will be called simply “i” and will start at about $28,000, are scheduled for January 2012.)

The high price in Japan is partly offset by the low cost of recharging. At Nissan dealerships, it costs just 500 yen ($6.02) for a 30-minute quick charge, and just 100 yen for a normal charge (typically overnight). A gallon of gasoline, by comparison, costs about $7.

Complicating matters, much of the Tokyo region is bracing for rolling blackouts this summer to compensate for the loss of electricity from the downed nuclear reactors in Fukushima.

Still, the profile of electric vehicles in the aftermath of the twin disasters may persuade city governments — among the largest buyers of the cars — to add more of them to their fleets. After all, the cars are typically driven during the day, when most of the blackouts are scheduled, and charged at night, when demand is lower.

“We were also a little taken aback for the desire for electric vehicles in the disaster zone,” said Toshitake Inoshita, a Nissan spokesman. “They can get power and there are outlets, even though gas has been in short supply.”

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