CHIBA, Japan - Nissan Motor Co unveiled a sketch of its first all-electric light commercial vehicle and Toyota Motor Corp introduced an electric car concept, underscoring carmakers' drive into zero-emissions vehicles.
Automakers at the 41st Tokyo Motor Show that opened on Wednesday also said they saw chances to develop new business opportunities related to electric vehicles, such as in rechargeable batteries.
Japan's car lobby expects new vehicle sales to sink to a 32-year low this financial year as the economic slump exacerbates demand already declining due to a shrinking population.
But reduced taxes on hybrids and other less-polluting cars have helped stem some of the slide -- and prompted automakers to ramp up their efforts in cleaner vehicles to boost growth.
We are hoping to build electric vehicles into a global core model, as well as possibly developing news business models around an electric-vehicle future, Mitsubishi Motors Corp President Osamu Masuko said at the biennial event.
But some executives expressed concern about the strength of the yen, which eats into carmakers' repatriated profits and dampens their sales competitiveness abroad.
It will be hard to export to North America if the dollar falls further against the yen, Honda Chief Executive Takanobu Ito told Reuters Television in an interview.
We will need to find export markets other than North America to keep our domestic output levels.
The Tokyo Motor Show, traditionally considered one of the industry's five big international shows, faces a thin turnout this year with only two small carmakers from overseas attending, underscoring the waning fortunes of Japan's once-buoyant auto market -- the third-biggest after China and the United States.
At the show, open to the media on Wednesday and Thursday and to the public from Saturday, automakers will showcase 19 world premiere cars, down from 37 in 2007. Floor space will be less than half of the previous show.
NEW BUSINESS OPPORTUNITIES
Nissan, which plans to mass-market electric vehicles in 2012, officially confirmed for the first time that it would add an all-electric version of the NV200 light commercial vehicle (LCV), a sketch of which was unveiled at its booth.
Chief Executive Carlos Ghosn spoke of new opportunities in the electric car field, after Nissan and trading house Sumitomo Corp announced on Tuesday plans to form a joint venture to recycle lithium-ion batteries after they are used in Nissan cars.
A second life for batteries exists as a power backup, emergency power supply or home storage unit for electric or solar energy, Ghosn told a news conference.
With Sumitomo, we are developing a brand-new '4-R' business model -- to reuse, resell, refabricate and recycle lithium-ion batteries. This innovative solution demonstrates our commitment to good product stewardship, from start to finish.
But Ghosn also told reporters that Nissan may replace shipments of Japan-made cars to dollar countries such as in the Middle East with cars manufactured in the United States, due to the dollar's weakness against the yen.
Nissan is assuming an average dollar rate of 95 yen in the financial year to March while Honda sees a rate of 91 yen, compared with around 90.60 in trading on Wednesday.
Earlier this month, the dollar fell near its January low of 87.10 yen, which was the lowest since 1995.
DON'T PUT ALL YOUR EGGS IN ONE BASKET
Toyota, known for its popular Prius gasoline-electric hybrid and miles ahead of competitors in the fast-growing field, is also ramping up efforts in developing electric cars.
Hybrid vehicles are becoming mainstream, but Toyota is not putting all of its eggs into this core technology, Toyota President Akio Toyoda told a news conference, introducing a range of cars including the FT-EV II electric car concept, and a new, compact five-door Lexus hybrid concept, the LF-Ch.
The world's biggest automaker also unveiled the Lexus LFA two-seater supercar powered by a 4.8-liter V10 gasoline engine, achieving a maximum speed of 325 km/h and acceleration from 0 to 100 km/hour in 3.7 seconds.
Toyota plans to produce only 500 units of the LFA, and sell them between December 2010 and December 2012. Toyota will begin taking orders from Wednesday, with a suggested retail price of $375,000.
(Editing by Chris Gallagher and Lincoln Feast)