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Japan is miles behind on electric vehicle charging, hurting car manufacturer goals

Japan is miles behind on electric vehicle charging, hurting car manufacturer goals
The Toyota Motor FT-Se at the Tokyo motor show in Japan.

The array of fully electric car models on display at this week’s Japan Mobility Show might suggest that the country is barrelling toward a future of battery-powered vehicles. But it’s facing one big problem: a severe lack of charging infrastructure.

The 30,000 charging connectors in Japan translate to one per 4,000 users, according to data by Enechange, a Tokyo-based infrastructure provider. That compares with one for every 500 people in Europe, 600 in the US and 1,800 in China, data compiled by BloombergNEF show.

Driving an electric vehicle in Japan can be an anxiety-inducing experience, with many highway rest areas equipped with one to three fast-charging stations that are often fully occupied, with other cars waiting their turn nearby. Even if parking lots have spots, they usually aren’t powerful enough to charge EVs fast enough.

Hidehiko Nakanishi, a 67-year-old resident of Kyoto, pointed to another pain point when recharging EVs in Japan. “I look for a charging connector via car navigation, only to find a broken charger,” he said, adding that packed charging stations on highways are “a common scene” that could be alleviated with better infrastructure. “It’s really disappointing.”

In BloombergNEF’s most recent Long-Term Electric Vehicle Outlook, no country had a higher share of any one concern than Japanese consumers did about the availability of EV chargers, with about 40% citing the issue. Deloitte conducted the survey.

In a tacit acknowledgment of the problem, the Japanese government earlier this month doubled its target to have 300,000 EV charging stations nationwide by 2030. It’s providing ¥17.5 billion ($117 million) in subsidies to operators for the current fiscal year through March, triple the prior period.

Honda Motor Co. has promised to phase out gasoline-powered car sales by 2040, while Nissan Motor Co. plans to introduce 27 electrified models, including 19 EVs, by fiscal 2030. Toyota Motor Corp. has set a goal to sell 1.5 million battery EVs by 2026, and 3.5 million by 2030.

One challenge is that many potential EV buyers live in apartment buildings that need residents to approve the installation of chargers to parking areas, making it difficult to retrofit older buildings, according to Yoshiaki Kawano, associate director at S&P Global Mobility. There are signs, however, that newer developments are proactively adding charging infrastructure to attract residents.

Even if charging infrastructure installations speed up, Kawano points out that there’s also a lack of EV buyers. Fully electric cars accounted for just 1.5% of new car sales last year.

Park24 Co., which operates the largest number of parking spaces in Japan under the black-and-yellow Times brand, recently began a trial at about 50 locations in Tokyo and adjacent Kanagawa prefecture that lets EVs charge for free. The company is asking users to answer surveys during the period, which ends in October 2024.

“We want to collect data to improve value-added services at our parking lots,” Koichiro Takahashi, a business development manager in charge of the trial service, said in an interview.

So far, the average charging period per visit is three hours, the company found, with most EVs used for business-related activities. Although stations are not running at full capacity due to low penetration rate of EVs, their usage is more than anticipated, Takahashi said.

Most charging spots also employ a cumbersome payment or subscription system. A single charge can sometimes cost as much as filling a tank of gas, depending on the provider, and subscription services have different fees based on usage frequency.

Park24 is asking to collect data from their EV charge users.

So far, most of the charging stations in Japan are located at auto dealerships and commercial facilities, followed by hotels and highways rest areas, a government report found. Nissan Motor Co.’s dealers deployed fast-charging at their stores across Japan after the automaker introduced the fully electric Leaf in 2010. Now, they’re looking to upgrade the charging spots, which can be used by non-Nissan vehicles, as well.

Enechange, which has just become the biggest provider of charging connectors in Japan, announced last year its plan to invest as much as ¥30 billion to install as many as 30,000 charging ports by 2027. Leveraging government subsidies, the company’s charging service has rapidly gained nationwide adoption, it said in a statement on Monday, adding its users can install EV charging ports “with zero setup or monthly costs.”

Park24, which previously indicated that it would hold off on deploying charging spots for a while, will use the data to decide the number and types of connectors — normal or fast — based on how quickly EVs are adopted in Japan, according to Takahashi. “We will actively install connectors as we see a rise in need,” he said.

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