Two of the most interesting things I saw at the Tokyo Motor Show weren't vehicles at all – they were buildings. Nissan constructed one and Toyota the other.
Let's start with Nissan. Nissan wants to make its all-electric car, the Leaf, a secondary power source for homes and to demonstrate it, it built a "Smart House" and put it in its display at the Tokyo show. If the Leaf's big lithium-ion battery is fully charged it can be connected up to the house through a new electrical panel and supply enough juice to keep the average Japanese home going for two days.
Since the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown in March, Japan has been suffering power shortages. The Nissan Smart House is equipped with solar panels and fuel cells so that the house can produce its own electricity. But if you don't have solar power or fuel cells, you can still pull emergency power out of the Leaf.
I was speaking to a friend who has lived in Japan for many years. He said when his wife found out that a Leaf could be a backup power source as well as a zero emission car, he was ordered to purchase one. People in Japan are getting fed up with power outages and promoting an electric car as a source of backup power in blackouts certainly won't hurt sales.
Toyota's building wasn't a house but something its calls the Smart Mobility Park. It has solar panels and a couple of wind turbines on the roof and is meant to be a charging station for electric cars and bicycles. One assumes this could also be part of a home. It comes with a H2V (Home to Vehicle) box that keeps an eye on where the power's going so you don't run out while leaving enough for your electric car's overnight recharging.
Parked in front of this thing were a bunch of communications-linked electric scooters and bicycles from Yamaha that use smart phones to tell you how much juice you have left and where you can find some more when you run out. Japanese manufacturers put a lot of R&D into electric cars and have had to suddenly rethink their plans when electricity was no longer easily available.
The March 11 disaster has forced the Japanese people to get very serious about reducing their dependence on both energy-hungry vehicles and homes. Electrical power rationing is now a way of life in Japan. Toyota, for example, closes manufacturing plants on Thursdays and Fridays and operates on Saturdays and Sundays instead to help stretch out the electricity capacity that's left. The bright lights of the Ginza, while still impressive, are but a pale reflection of what they used to be before the power shortages. Even the Rainbow Bridge across Tokyo Bay is rainbow-like no longer. They've turned out the once-amazing display of coloured lights and it's just plain white now.
The Japanese automotive industry, which has been suffering year after year of declining sales in the home market, knows it has to deliver a less energy intensive future. Toyota states prominently, "People, cars and society are linked" and with assets like the Toyota Housing Corp. it's doing something about it while making a business out of it too. But now the whole industry's thinking is going well beyond cars. Nissan as a home builder? Why not.