The car recharges in about seven hours using a normal outlet.

One of Japan’s oldest automakers—its first car left the assembly line in 1917—Mitsubishi Motors has a unique place, although it’s certainly not the largest of the Japanese manufacturers. Looking towards sustainable growth, the company needs to think originally and chart its own individual course, says company president Osamu Masuko.

“Mitsubishi Motors is not a big company, so for the future we felt that we needed our own special technology,” he says. “Many companies have gone into hybrid technology, and Japanese makers are probably the most advanced in the world. Unfortunately, Mitsubishi Motors does not have a technical background in hybrids—but with EVs we go back more than 40 years.”

Interest in EVs (electric vehicles) has grown along with concern about carbon emissions—by governments, at least, if not always for drivers. But the massive jump in oil prices in 2008 reminded everyone that petroleum has major limitations, not least finite supply.

Japanese manufacturers have long been leaders in producing small, fuel-efficient vehicles, and also first brought the hybrid car to mass markets.

But hybrids still burn gasoline and emit CO2—much reduced, but not zero. While some see fuel cells or hydrogen fuels as cleaner candidates, Mitsubishi went electric. “Because EVs are where we felt we could be competitive, we made the strategic decision to move to full production of the i-MiEV,” Mr. Masuko says. “We began sales in Japan in 2009.”

Based on Mitsubishi’s 660cc gasoline “i” minicar, the four-door i-MiEV uses a permanent magnet synchronous motor and new lithium-ion batteries for a maximum range of 160km and a top speed of 130kph. The maker claims that the running cost is just one-third that of the “i, “ even lower when cheap nighttime electricity is used.

“The car recharges in about seven hours using a normal outlet (at 200 volts and 15 amperes), or to 80 percent in about 30 minutes using a three-phase quick charger,” Mr. Masuko explains. “Charging is an issue; once quick chargers are widely available, things will be quite different.” Mitsubishi, along with three other Japanese automakers and the Tokyo Electric Power Company, is an executive member of CHAdeMO, a group of 208 businesses and government bodies working towards a standardized EV charging method.

EVs provide quicker acceleration than internal-combustion vehicles, as the EV’s electric motor produces higher torque at a lower speeds. “Reducing noise has been an issue for car manufacturers for a long time,” Mr. Masuko adds, “but now, some feel that EVs are too quiet to be heard by pedestrians. So there have been discussions that EVs should actually produce a certain level of noise.”

In its initial market in Japan, the i-MiEV was adopted by electric utilities, local governments and environmentally-conscious companies, Mr. Masuko says. “Interestingly, we’ve had a lot of interest from taxi companies, too.”

But the environment is not the only reason Mitsubishi wants to be an EV leader. “EVs are a way of developing new business for many companies,” he says. “We see this with taxi fleets, and electric emergency service vehicles, or even garbage trucks with electric compressors, might be next. Technologies for recharging without cables, such as a microwave system, are also being researched. So it’s good for the environment, but also for our economy.”

One of the biggest challenges with i-MiEV production is not in the construction of an EV. “The base vehicle, the ’I,’ was a good candidate for conversion to an EV,” Mr. Masuko explains, “The motor, inverter and charger were mounted in the space where the engine and transmission used to be. The battery was fitted under the body in the fuel tank space, which makes the center of gravity lower and contributes to a more stable ride. The biggest problem is the limitations of battery production. We’re increasing production of the i-MiEV as fast as batteries can be supplied to us, and are aiming to produce 18,000 i-MiEVs annually in 2011.”

 

Following Japan, the i-MiEV will be released in Europe within 2010, then later in the US. “We’re producing the vehicle at our Mizushima Plant in Japan,” Mr. Masuko says. “As small as it is, we can’t ship it by plane! So we will continue to call on WWL for logistics solutions to transport it to other markets. The company has always been an important partner for us.”

 

WWL will have its green work cut out; Mitsubishi has set standards requiring CO2 reductions across its supply chain. “For 2020, we set a goal of a 20-percent reduction from 2005 levels, not just in our factories, but by our suppliers, subsidiaries and other affiliated companies. Automobile emissions are decreasing every year; we have to look beyond the cars themselves to everything we do.”

 

Fact box: Osamu Masuko

Osamu Masuko joined Mitsubishi Corporation in 1972. Most of his career has been involved with automobiles, including positions related to the automobile business in both Korea and Indonesia. Mr. Masuko joined Mitsubishi Motors Corporation in June 2004 as Managing Director (Representative Director), Head of Overseas Operations; he became President in January 2005. Mr. Masuko enjoys golf, reading and watching rugby.


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