Archive for the ‘Travel & Transportation’ Category

Electric cars aren’t just for driving any more

Tuesday, March 13th, 2012

Nissan charged up about giving back to the community.

Late last month, Nissan announced that starting in April its new electric car, the Leaf, would be used as an emergency power supply for a new office-condominium high-rise in Shinjuku managed by Sumitomo Real Estate. In the event of a disaster that resulted in a power failure, Leaf cars could be connected to the building’s electrical system through outlets specially installed for recharging electric vehicles and then the cars’ stored power could be used to supply electricity to the building for up to 42 hours for emergency services such as recharging cell phones and illumination. As a side note, the building also has a special hall that can be converted into a shelter for people in Tokyo who cannot return home during a disaster.

Though this is just a corollary benefit of the Leaf, Nissan’s announcement stresses the idea that electric vehicles could offer a wider range of purposes than just mobility. A number of new housing communities that are being developed with “smart grid” technologies have homes with EV charging stations. As with the Sumitomo building, these stations not only provide electricity for charging the battery of an EV, they also accept electricity from an EV that can be used in the home.

Such news is being stressed as more carmakers enter the EV field. Mercedes Benz Japan said it will start selling its own electric car, Smart, as early as August due to consumer demand. It will be the first foreign EV sold in Japan. At the moment the price hasn’t been determined, but an executive with the company has said it will be competitive with domestic EVs. The Leaf’s sticker price is about ¥4 million, but with the restart of the government’s eco car subsidy, a consumer could take it home for about ¥3 million. The Mitsubishi EV, the MiEV, is even cheaper. After subtracting the subsidy it would cost a little less than ¥2 million.

In related news, Panasonic has said it will start selling a rechargeable storage battery system (chikuden) for the home starting next week. The battery specifically takes advantage of home solar systems, and is mainly being promoted as a stopgap measure for power outages. The problem with solar systems is that they only work when the sun is shining and without a storage device any excess power goes to waste if it isn’t fed back into the grid. This battery can store solar power for the night, for a rainy day, or for blackouts. The battery is a lithium ion type, measuring 45 cm by 15.6 cm by 60 cm. Its capacity is 4.65kW per hour. When fully charged it can supply a house of average size with normal power for two days. The main drawback is the cost, which is ¥2,110,500. It’s cheaper to buy a MiEV.

Can financial incentives put a brake on senior driving?

Tuesday, January 24th, 2012

Two weeks ago a lawyer in Chiba was cited for leaving the scene of an accident. He had hit a pedestrian with his car but later told police he didn’t notice anything odd at the time the accident occurred. The police believe him because he’s 81. The victim was also “over 60.” This may be a pattern we have to get used to. According to the transport ministry, more than 6,000 traffic accidents a year involve a driver confusing the brake for the accelerator. Though the ministry doesn’t break this particular statistic down into age groups, it does report that in 2010 there were 0.5 traffic accidents per 10,000 drivers between the ages of 25 and 54, and 3.3 accidents per 10,000 drivers over the age of 75. In the same year 106,000 of the 724,000 traffic accidents were caused by drivers over 65, while 50.4 percent of the people who died in traffic accidents were over 65, both new records.

Caution, geezer on board: ochiba (fallen leaf) car decal identifying elderly driver, now replaced with a more ambiguous design

Consequently, a number of local governments have been trying to convince elderly residents to surrender their drivers licenses, and have turned to financial incentives to do so. Ichihara city in Chiba Prefecture will launch a program in February wherein “old people” (no actual age is designated) who voluntarily give up their licenses will receive in return an identification card that allows them a 10 percent discount with 17 taxi companies operating in the city. Normally, municipalities offer discounts for bus rides, which may not sound like much of a trade-in considering that, traditionally, many local governments actually subsidized public transportation for elderly riders, in many cases giving then free passes. That time-honored practice started disappearing as the percentage of elderly, especially in rural areas, steeply increased over the past two decades. Local governments just couldn’t afford to pay for all those fares.

But driving could become even more dangerous as the baby boom generation enters its twilight years. Among previous generations, the driving population was mostly limited to men, but among boomers there are just as many women behind the wheel, which means there will soon be a sudden steep increase in the number of elderly drivers. In addition, insurance companies want to increase premiums for older drivers. Many of these people consider their drivers licenses more than a necessity, so local police departments issue unten keireki shomeisho, or “certificates of driving history,” a form of ID that looks just like a drivers license but isn’t. The psychological effectiveness is questionable, but in any case it is this card that can be used for discounts when using taxis or public transportation. To make the card more attractive, local merchants in Shizuoka Prefecture have agreed to offer discounts to anyone who produces one (rather than a bona fide drivers license). Last year in Kagawa Prefecture, 976 people gave up their licenses, a threefold increase over the previous year owning to a new discount service provided by the local taxi union and a special low-priced IC bus card especially for older patrons.

A university professor who specializes in “traffic sociology” told Nishi Nihon Shimbun that local government’s face a very real problem of guaranteeing old people mobility in the future. If public transportation isn’t available and affordable, then the elderly are going to drive as long as they possibly can, a possibility some carmakers are trying to take advantage of. It’s basically up to friends and relatives, and not just the local authorities, to convince them to give it up “without hurting their pride.” Economic incentives may be a good way to convince them, but first bus and train lines have to be substantialized and taxi service increased.

Foreign carmakers don’t need a strong yen (but they’re happy to have it)

Tuesday, January 10th, 2012

Make mine Porsche

The European debt crisis has pushed the value of the yen up in relation to the euro in ways that are making a lot of Japanese exporters anxious. As one industrialist told NHK the other night, it isn’t the same as the yen’s rise against the dollar, a development they can counteract at least partially by increasing production in the U.S. There’s relatively little Japanese production capacity in Europe.

Tokyo Shimbun wonders why the drop in the euro hasn’t helped Japanese buyers of European cars. While some other European products have dropped in price over the last year due to the exchange rate, cars have stayed the same. The given reason is that manufacturers decide on prices only once a year, so short-term currency rate fluctuations aren’t necessarily reflected on sticker prices. However, another reason came from an anonymous industry insider who told the newspaper that makers of European automobiles “have a responsibility to maintain brand value” to customers who pay more under the assumption that when they trade in the car down the line they’ll get more money for it. Given that trade-in values of automobiles in Japan are quite low to begin with, this explanation sounds only half right.

To put things into perspective, the value of the euro against the yen has decreased 40 percent since 2007, when it was more than ¥160. During the 2011 calendar year it lost ¥8, which means a windfall of ¥370,000 to makers for a car priced at ¥5 million. And despite the ongoing recession, the number of imports sold in November was 30 percent higher than the number sold in November 2010. According to analysts interviewed by Tokyo Shimbun, Japanese car buyers preferred European cars for their “energy saving qualities and performance.” Certain models, in fact, are so popular they’re on back order. Consequently, there is absolutely no incentive to reduce prices, and Japanese customers don’t really expect it the way they expect Japanese makers to lower prices in order to be competitive.

The fact is, the high yen gets a lot of press in Japan because Japanese manufacturers count so much on overseas sales. Market share in the U.S. and other regions is extremely important. In contrast, the Japan market is a relatively small one for European carmakers. And since many of them have over the past decade bypassed local importers and set up their own dealerships, they can more or less do what they want, and that includes ignoring the social pressure of reflecting the high yen in their prices.

Yet another reason for good sales is the March disaster, which disrupted supply chains for Japanese cars. Foreign car supply was unaffected, resulting in a 7 percent increase in sales (95,452 total sold) for the first half of 2011 alone. BMW, which now sells the Mini, enjoyed an 8.7 percent increase. Interestingly enough, out of all the exporters Volkswagen sold the most and yet saw a decrease of 3.2 percent over the previous year.

Auto-correct: Police getting more serious with parking scofflaws

Friday, December 23rd, 2011

‘Tis the season to try to become better for a new year. Often it starts with little things, like squaring debts. The police in Miyagi Prefecture, however, are taking no chances. They’ve just announced a new strategy to force car owners with outstanding parking tickets to pay up: Cars that have been impounded as “abandoned” will be auctioned off on Yahoo.

Don't even think about it

As in most countries where automobiles are widely used, Japan struggles with the problem of where to put them when they aren’t in motion. In fact, given its perennial space difficulties, it’s probably more of a problem in Japan, which explains why parking violations are, administratively at least, on a par with moving violations. If you’re caught illegally parking it goes down on your driving record, which is not generally the case in most other developed countries. That said, people with parking tickets seem just as likely to blow them off because the police don’t always have the time or resources to pursue scofflaws.

Fines for illegal parking are ¥15,000 or ¥12,000 for a regular passenger car, depending on the place and how long the vehicle stays there. It’s more for large vans and trucks (¥21,000 and ¥15,000) and less for motorcycles (¥9,000 and ¥7,000), though not as much as it is for “stopping” in traffic. If the car is towed, the violator also has to pay for the towing fee (about ¥14,000 in Tokyo) and storage costs (whatever the garage or lot happens to charge). However, according to an article in the Tokyo Shimbun, often when people show up to claim their vehicle, the operators will release it to the person even if he or she doesn’t have the cash to pay. They simply send the person a bill, which few, it seems, end up paying.

Miyagi Prefecture has more than 2,200 cases of unpaid parking fines comprising more than ¥30 million, which isn’t a lot in the scheme of things but apparently many police departments at the local level rely on fines to subsidize certain police functions, especially with regards to traffic safety. All traffic fines nationwide are collected by the Bank of Japan, and twice a year these funds are divided up according to population and number of traffic accidents and sent back to the prefectural police departments.

Continue reading about auctioning impounded cars →

You can’t get there from here: Railway tries to bust “orikaeshi” riders

Sunday, December 18th, 2011

Two years ago, this blog talked about the Hokuso Line, which has been called the most expensive train in Japan. It runs between Keisei Takasago Station in eastern Tokyo and Inba Nihon Idai Station in northern Chiba Prefecture. Since that article was posted the Sky Access Limited Express opened between Keisei Ueno Station and Narita Airport. In Chiba this train, like the Narita Skyliner, runs on the Hokuso tracks. Consequently, a lot of commuters living in eastern Chiba who use the Hokuso Line to get to work in Tokyo were happy, since the Access adds an extra express train, making it faster to get to their jobs.

Unhappy returns: Hokuso Line poster saying you need an extra ticket if you double back

In October, the Chiba New Town Railway, which operates the Hokuso Line, started a crackdown campaign against patrons who do what is called orikaeshi josha (“doubling back”). When we first saw the posters for the crackdown campaign in Inzai Makinohara Station, we misunderstood the reason for orikaeshi. Because Inzai Makinohara is not an Access stop, we assumed passengers returning home from Tokyo would take the express to Inba Nihon Idai Station, which is one station further than Makinohara, and then transfer to a local train going in the opposite direction. However, when we checked train schedules it didn’t make any sense. Most times of the day the local train going west from Inba Nihon Idai leaves one minute before any Access train going east arrives there; which means anyone doing orikaeshi would have to wait at least ten minutes for the next local going west.

What we learned is that people don’t do orikaeshi at Inzai Makinohara when they return home, but rather when they leave for work in the morning. To catch the Access, which cuts up to 20 minutes from their commute, passengers can transfer at the next station going west, Chiba New Town Chuo, but by that time all the seats have probably been filled by people who got on at the previous Access station, Inba Nihon Idai. So by “doubling back” to Inba Nihon Idai from Inzai Makinohara they can get a seat on the express.

However, passengers are supposed to pay to do that, and many don’t. Considering that the fare between Inzai and Inba — one station — is ¥290, the operators of the Hokuso Line obviously believe they’re losing a lot of money. Even for commuters with monthly passes, the difference is more than ¥2,000, which explains the crackdown.

Continue reading about orikaeshi josha →

Annals of cheap: Skymark Airlines

Sunday, November 20th, 2011

Last spring, budget carrier Skymark Airlines announced new service from Narita airport to Hokkaido, Okinawa and Kyushu starting this fall, and as a special promotional incentive would offer one-way fares at only ¥980 for the first three months on each new route. The deal is limited to only 20 seats on each flight. These seats can only be booked through Skymark’s website and have to be reserved at least 28 days in advance. Service to Asahikawa (one round trip a day) and Shin Chitose (Sapporo, two round trips) in Hokkaido commenced Oct. 30. Flights to Naha in Okinawa will begin Dec. 8 (two round trips), and supposedly the Fukuoka route opens on Feb. 1 of next year, though it hasn’t been announced on the website yet. According to the Mainichi Shimbun, the ¥980 seats tend to be snatched up minutes after they’re made available.

Skymark Airlines website

Skymark, which opened for business in 1996, has established these routes to compete with ANA’s new special low-cost carrier Peach Airlines, which has begun service, but for the moment only flies out of Kansai International Airport in Osaka. The regular one-way fares for the new routes on Skymark are ¥12,800 for Shin Chitose, ¥13,800 for Asahikawa and Fukuoka and ¥16,800 for Naha, though there is also another limited deal for one-way flights as low as ¥3,800 for bookings made at least 21 days in advance. Regular one-way flights to all these destinations on JAL or ANA from Narita start at about ¥30,000. Basically, Skymark is be the first budget carrier to open a hub at Narita.

A Mainichi reporter took a flight to Shin Chitose the first day the ¥980 seats were available. He had been made aware that the flight offered “no service,” though it’s the same no matter which fare you pay. Consequently, he spent ¥120 for a bottle of tea in the airport and then discovered that Skymark only charged ¥100 for the same amount of tea on board. Having been conditioned to expect higher charges he was surprised (though not as surprised as we were that security allowed him to carry a liquid onto the plane). He also said the seats were not as cramped as he thought they’d be, comparing them to “non-reserved seats on the Shinkansen” in terms of roominess. He met a 31-year-old man on the flight who was going home to Sapporo “for the first time in 3 years” and felt it strange that the train from Shin Chitose Airport to the city proper was more (¥1,040) than the air fare from Tokyo.

The one demerit about the ¥980 flight is that Skymark has no arrangement with other airlines at Narita for backup flights to Hokkaido. That means if a Skymark flight is cancelled for any reason, the passenger either has to wait until the next available Skymark flight with empty seats, which might not be until the next day, or cancel the Skymark flight and buy a new ticket on another airline. The problem here is that most airlines that fly from Tokyo to Hokkaido — or anywhere in Japan — do so out of Haneda, including an increasing number of international carriers.

Car taxes could be cut next year

Wednesday, November 2nd, 2011

Old or new, buy later and save!

When you buy an automobile in Japan you pay a bunch of taxes. And when you own an automobile in Japan, you pay a bunch even more taxes on a yearly or biannual basis. Since car sales are considered an engine of the economy second only to home purchases in terms of consumer spending, the government wants more people to buy cars and is thinking about slashing these related taxes.

A tax study group is now discussing the abolition of the jidosha shutokuzei (car purchase tax), which currently amounts to 5 percent of the price paid for a regular automobile and 3 percent for a “mini” (kei) car whose engine displacement is 660 cc or less. This tax is levied on all car sales, new or used, of over ¥500,000 and goes to local governments. Since it’s estimated that car purchase tax revenues for fiscal 2011 will amount to ¥200 billion, it’s quite a sacrifice, but the auto industry has taken a pounding since the March 11 disaster and taxes constitute a fairly large portion of the outlay for a car purchase.

However, there’s more. The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, as well as the various related industry associations, are pushing for eliminating or reducing other auto-related taxes, in particular the annual automobile tax, which is ¥39,000 for passenger cars and ¥7,200 for kei cars. Then there’s the juryozei (weight tax), which is levied at the time of purchase and then every time the automobile is brought in for its mandatory vehicle inspection (shaken) and brings in about ¥700 billion for the central government. That’s ¥37,000 for a vehicle of less than one ton, ¥56,000 for vehicles between 1 and 1.5 tons, etc. Then there’s also a special tax just for kei cars, and, of course, don’t forget that consumption taxes apply to all purchases of cars and parts, not to mention gasoline taxes.

Local governments will probably have something to say about the reduction of all these taxes since they are the main beneficiary. The provisional tax reduction for automobiles designated as being environmentally friendly (eco cars) is scheduled to end on April 30 of next year, and the study group is thinking of eliminating or at least greatly reducing both the car purchase tax and the weight taxes for eco cars in order to promote their sale. In any event, if and when the reductions are approved, they won’t go into effect until fiscal 2012.

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