By Hideki Kishimoto and Shuji Ogo, The Yomiuri Shimbun
TOKYO -- Ultra minicars, which are one- or two-seater vehicles smaller than conventional minicars, have begun running on public roads. Using prototype models, automakers certified by the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry are conducting road tests over a trial period of about two years.
Consumer models of ultra minicars will likely debut in fiscal 2015 at the earliest.
The government plans to promote the widespread use of ultra minicars, which boast high fuel efficiency, in an effort to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.
An official of the Urban Renaissance Agency (UR) described the ride quality of ultra minicars: "They are powerful at any speed. They even run very smoothly on slopes." On July 1, UR introduced New Mobility Concept (NMC), Nissan Motor Co.'s ultra minicar prototype model.
In collaboration with UR, the Kanagawa prefectural government applied to the ministry for permission to run the ultra minicars on public roads. Permission was granted on June 14, making the prefecture the nation's first eligible testing grounds.
The NMC is an electric vehicle equipped with two seats. When two adult passengers are seated in the vehicle, there is no additional space to accommodate large bags.
Reaching a maximum speed of 50 miles per hour, ultra minicars can merge with other vehicular traffic on ordinary roads. They can travel about 62 miles on a single recharge.
UR officials use NMCs to conduct inspection tours at its company-managed housing complexes in Yokohama and Yokosuka.
Built on high ground, the roads inside the housing complexes are narrow with many curves and slopes. As a result, NMCs are convenient as their turn radius is small.
The ultra minicars also make less noise while running than conventional vehicles. A 60-year-old homemaker living in Yokodai Chuo Danchi complex in Isogo Ward, Yokohama, said: "The cars don't emit exhaust. I don't notice anything unpleasant when they pass by."
On Teshima island of Tonosho, six NMC rental vehicles have been made available to tourists to the Inland Sea island since July 20. The service is provided by the town government, SoftBank Mobile Corp., Benesse Holdings Inc. and other partners.
The rental fee is 8,400 yen (about $85) a day, including recharging fees. Two recharging facilities were built on the island, but officials in charge of the service said recharging is usually unnecessary as the island's outer perimeter is only about 11 miles.
Many of the island's roads are narrow. Reviews from users have been good. One said, "It's easy to pass others cars coming from the opposite direction." The officials said the ultra minicars are fully booked until the end of this month.
The Road Transport Vehicle Law, which designates the vehicles allowed to run on public roads, currently has five vehicle categories, including ordinary passenger vehicles and minicars. At present, the list of categories does not contain ultra minicars.
With plans to certify about 300 ultra minicars by the end of fiscal 2013, the transport ministry has launched efforts to develop the consumer market.
The ministry aims to establish a system to provide financial assistance to local governments when they introduce ultra minicars, or if they plan to apply for or are granted permission to run the vehicles on public roads.
Under the system, the central government will shoulder a half to one-third of the local governments' costs. The ministry has already decided to give assistance to 28 such projects nationwide.
Even so, there are many hurdles to clear.
Industry sources say that consumers will not buy ultra minicars unless their price point is about 600,000 yen to 700,000 yen, lower than that of conventional minicars.
To lower costs, automakers forecast that mass production of at least 100,000 units a year will be necessary. But an official of a major automaker said, "It's difficult to shift to mass production when we aren't able to gauge the level of demand."
Safety is another important issue. The small bodies of ultra minicars make it harder for drivers of larger vehicles, such as trucks, to spot them. In the event of an accident, the crash impact on a ultra minicar can be severe.
If cost becomes the main priority, safety could be compromised. Balancing the two factors is expected to be one major challenge.
In January, the central government allowed mainly local governments to let ultra minicars run on public roads on the condition that the vehicles are restricted to roads where they can be operated safely.
Ultra minicars are allowed to run on public roads designated by local governments but prohibited on expressways and other roads where the speed limit exceeds 37 mph.