Challenges for Autogas in breaking into the market for the private motorists in Japan

Today I took a taxi in downtown Tokyo. It was a Prius, Toyota’s hybrid vehicle which runs for more than 20 kilometres per litter of gasoline. The ride was smooth and the car was very comfortable.

The driver told me that the Prius now makes up almost 30% of his taxi company’s car pool. That came as a bit of a surprise to me. Because, when it comes to Tokyo taxis, it usually means “Croun-Confort” and “Sedric-Sedan”, which are Autogas-dedicated vehicles and which have been manufactured by Toyota and Nissan respectively for more than 20 years. I would not have been surprised if he’d told me that Prius 5% to 10% of their car pool. But 30% was certainly a much higher share than I had imagined.

Recently it was reported that Toyota would like to stop manufacturing their Autogas dedicated vehicles in future. This is not good news for our industry. Autogas use in Japan, 80% of which roughly depends on taxis, has been in almost constant decline since 1988, reaching about 1.2 million tonnes in 2011.  

The Japanese government had been giving subsidies to the Autogas industry for ten years, but these were stopped completely in March of this year. There were two types of subsidy on offer: a grant for fuel providers equal to 50% of the cost of building new Autogas filling stations for non-taxi use; and a grant of 100 000 yen (about $1 500 US dollars) for motorists to cover the cost of converting a gasoline-powered vehicle to run on Autogas. Thanks to these grants, the Autogas market for driving school vehicles was able to develop. But they did not prove sufficient to permit Autogas to penetrate the market for the private motorists. Without them, it will be harder – bit not impossible.   

Autogas is still an attractive road-transport fuel. The pump price of Autogas has been much less than those of petrol and diesel for some years now, as shown in the chart below. In March 2012, the price of Autogas in the Tokyo area averaged 75.6 yen per litre, compared with 157 yen for gasoline and 137 yen for diesel. The big differences in price are mainly because of tax differentials. The fuel taxes on Autogas, petrol and diesel are currently 9.8, 53.8 and 32.1 yen per litre respectively. As a result, Autogas prices have held steady at about 60% of the price of gasoline for several years. On top of that, of course, Autogas is a more environmentally friendly fuel than the other two.

Note: the prices are for March in each year

Despite the suppression of the subsidies I just described earlier this year, the Japanese government has reaffirmed its view that Autogas is an important fuel for road transportation, because of the fact that the distribution network is not fixed like natural gas and electricity and so can provide an important back up in the event of an emergency. This was amply demonstrated during the disaster caused by the earthquake and Tsunami in March 2011.

Given these advantages, there is a strong case for boosting the use of Autogas in Japan. And in view of the limited scope for expanding its use as a taxi fuel, and as I argued in my last article for Autogas Updates (April 2012), the way forward has to be private motorists: we must focus on developing sales in that key market segment!

The most efficient way for the LPG industry to go about that is to adopt a similar approach as in Europe involving close cooperation between the conversion kit

suppliers and the car manufacturers to ensure that high-quality OEM Autogas vehicles are made available. We must ensure that private motorists are offered a variety of different Autogas models from which they can select the one best suited to their needs. And they must be offered the same warranty as available for cars powered by gasoline and diesel.

There are two important obstacles that have to overcome for that to happen. Firstly, as an industry, we have to update the standards that apply to all vehicles to make them compatible with new types of Autogas vehicles, particularly with respect to the fuel-supply control system. All vehicles manufactured in or imported into Japan must comply with the Road Transportation Vehicle Act, under which the industry is responsible for devising appropriate standards i.e. using a self-regulating approach. For Autogas vehicles, standards were previously set on the specialized vehicle parts for Autogas cars, which were endorsed by the Japanese authority and formally incorporated into the Act.

At the same time, we need to work on obtaining permission to use the toroidal type of fuel tank in Autogas vehicles. As yet, they are not allowed in Japan. The purpose of toroidal tanks is that can be installed in the space intended for the spare tyre in the trunk (boot) of the car, so as to free up storage space (as shown in the photograph below). We must demonstrate to the public authorities that the toroidal tanks manufactured to European standards are perfectly safe for use in Japan too.

We are just at the beginning of the process of promoting the use of Autogas by private motorists. The goal, as set out in the 2030 roadmap of the Japan LPG Association, is increase the stock of the Autogas vehicles from just 260 000 now to 2.6 million in 2030. Let’s get cracking – there is no time to lose!

For more information about Autogas in Japan, please contact Makoto Arahata by email at: