Hybrids break through in the Japan auto market

Published Fri, 2014.04.04 | By

Dan Rutherford

Japan’s 2012 passenger vehicle fuel economy guide is out (Japanese only), and for those interested in these matters it provides much food for thought. The most striking finding is that the fuel economy of new passenger vehicles in Japan improved approximately 8% between 2011 to 2012, from 19.5 to 21.1 km/L (10-15 mode) and 17.8 to 19.4 km/L (JC08 mode). Overall, fuel economy has improved by more than 70% since 1995, and has averaged 6% annually over the past five years (Figure 1). In aggregate Japanese automakers exceeded the 2015 standards in 2011, and are on track to beat the 2020 standards well before 2015 (blue diamonds).

Chart, Japan new vehicle and fuel economy targets, 1995-2020

A good share of the fuel economy improvement can be attributed to the rise of hybrid electric vehicles in Japan, which hands down has the highest penetration of hybrids worldwide. Figure 2 shows the hybrid market share for new passenger vehicles in Japan from fiscal year 2005 to 2013 YTD. As the chart shows, hybrid market share jumped starting in 2009, when the Japanese government adopted aggressive new fiscal incentives for fuel efficient vehicles and the third generation Prius was introduced. Hybrids now account for more than 30% of the 2.9 million standard passenger vehicles sold and about 20% of the 4.5 million passenger vehicles including minicars. Today, almost 60% of new cars in Japan are either hybrids or minicars, with the fuel economy implications shown above. In comparison, the next highest hybrid penetration that we’ve seen around the world is in the 1.7-million-per-year California auto market, which has a 7% hybrid market share.

Chart, Japan hybrid vehicle market share by FY, 2005–2013

This trend was driven in part by a suite of subsidies and tax breaks for advanced and low emitting vehicles. Subsidy programs covering hybrids were in effect between April 2009 and September 2010, and then again from April to September 2012 as a response to the 2011 Tohoku earthquake. Hybrid electric vehicles, along with high-efficiency non-hybrids, also qualify for partial or complete exclusion from taxes and registration fees (the acquisition tax, tonnage tax, and automobile registration tax) on the basis of their superior fuel economy. As an example, by purchasing a new 2.5 million JPY (approx. $25,000 US) Toyota Prius in May 2010, consumers saved 188,700 JPY ($1,887 USD) due to tax breaks and received 100,000 JPY ($1000) from the subsidy program.

The effectiveness of these measures has taken almost everyone by surprise. When the Japanese government established its latest PV fuel economy targets in 2011, it assumed that hybrid market share would be 18% in 2020 (an assessment we disagreed with, for the record), a level that was actually exceeded in 2012. Moreover, hybrid market share has continued to increase despite the ending of the subsidy program in 2012, although the tax breaks remain in effect for all fuel efficient vehicles. This suggests that Japan has gone well beyond the early market adopters and has likely reached a tipping point where the mass market is increasingly demanding hybrid vehicles.

This is all especially important as Japan is the third-largest auto manufacturing market (after China, US), and Japan-headquartered automakers (primarily Toyota, also Honda) have accounted for the vast majority of global hybrid sales. High hybrid market share is helping Japan meet and even exceed its environmental and fuel security goals for the transportation sector, and it’s also showing industrial technology leadership. While not free, policymakers in other countries hoping to accelerate advanced technology vehicles, including battery electric and fuel cell vehicles, would do well to take notice of Japan’s experience with incentive programs for hybrid vehicles.