What Do the Japanese Know That We Don't About Hybrids?

October 23, 2005
What do the Japanese know about hybrid-electric vehicles that Americans don't? Or is it the other way around? HEVs had a several-year head start in the Japanese market, and there are more versions on sale there. Yet sales there are all but nonexistent. Even adjusted for the comparative size of the two markets, Japanese buyers simply don't seem to care about the fuel-efficient technology, despite major industry promotional campaigns.

You'd think it would be the other way around. Until recently, fuel was cheap here, dear in Japan, where they pay only slightly less than in Europe. And Japanese drivers face some of the toughest traffic jams on the planet, perfect for HEVs, which need stop-and-go conditions to recharge their batteries. Ironically, products like the Toyota Prius and Honda Insight are tuned to Japanese roadways, so for many Americans driving on open highways, they fall far short of mileage expectations.

Did I mention the ongoing Japanese love affair with things technological? Put a computer chip in it, and virtually anything will find a place in the Asian market. Except hybrids. Why? I wish I could give a good answer. No one I've spoken to has a convincing argument. Maybe the Japanese simply realize that hybrids don't deliver the value for the dollar manufacturers are claiming? Maybe they're worried about reliability? Hard to say, but for now, Japanese makers have to hope hybrid demand keeps growing in the U.S.

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