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Employees assemble the Nissan Leaf electric vehicle at the Oppama plant in Yokosuka city, near Tokyo, on July 2, 2011. Nissan started factory operation on Saturday and Sunday this month as Japan Automobile manufacturers Association agreed to close their factories on Thursday and Friday for power saving due to the expected power shortage in the wake of the March 11 earthquake and nuclear disaster. (YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP/Getty Images)
Employees assemble the Nissan Leaf electric vehicle at the Oppama plant in Yokosuka city, near Tokyo, on July 2, 2011. Nissan started factory operation on Saturday and Sunday this month as Japan Automobile manufacturers Association agreed to close their factories on Thursday and Friday for power saving due to the expected power shortage in the wake of the March 11 earthquake and nuclear disaster. (YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP/Getty Images)

Electric Vehicles

Electric vehicles useful in Japan's disaster zones Add to ...

The earthquake and tsunami that devastated northeast Japan on March 11 have ignited debate over whether the spread of electric cars would stall in a country facing a nuclear crisis, tight electricity supply and the possibility of higher electricity prices.

Masuko said he did not perceive any headwind for EVs, but rather a heightened need to develop renewable energy and multiple power sources. Electric cars, he said, could also be a useful source of power in an emergency by discharging electricity from their batteries.

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"At first we wondered whether EVs could be useful in the disaster zones, and it turned out that they were because gasoline was scarce at the beginning," Masuko said. The Mitsubishi group has loaned 89 i-MiEVs free to the region's governments and others helping with relief efforts.

"Once enough gasoline became available we asked whether we could have them back, but we were told they were still useful so not one has been returned yet," he said.

Mitsubishi Motors said it hopes to develop and market within this business year a portable converter with enough output capacity to allow its electric cars to power household electronics such as rice cookers and washing machines.

A converter for laptop computers and other products that use less electricity is already available as an option.

On a larger scale, Japanese auto makers including Mitsubishi Motors, Nissan and Toyota Motor Corp are looking to add a function that would enable EVs to discharge electricity directly to homes. The i-MiEV would be able to power an average household for at least a day.

With the proper control functions, that would allow households equipped with solar panels to charge their EVs during the day with clean energy, then use the power stored in the car's batteries to supply the household at peak hours.

Mitsubishi Motors will buy the smaller-capacity lithium-ion batteries for the i-MiEV's "M" grade from Toshiba Corp and continue using batteries made by its joint venture with Mitsubishi Corp and GS Yuasa Corp for the "G".

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