Posted by: Kenji Hall on June 1, 2008
With oil prices going through the roof, it’s not a bad time for Japan Post to be trying to wean itself off gas-powered cars. Japan’s recently privatized postal delivery system has been looking at the possibility of switching to electric cars for years but is only now giving the idea serious consideration, according to a Nihon Keizai Shimbun report today. The paper says gas-electric hybrid cars could fill in until Japanese carmakers start rolling out business-use electric cars next year. Postal officials also have approached Japanese manufacturers to push for development of electric-powered motorbikes.
JP says nothing has been decided. The postal service owns about 22,000 small trucks and cars for deliveries. JP spokesman Yukio Yasumura says that replacing the current fleet with electric cars is easier said than done. Electric cars still cost tens of thousands of dollars more than gas-powered models of the same class an there’s still no network of refueling stations. They would also be better suited for urban areas where there’s a lot stop-and-go since electric cars don’t consume energy when idle.
It’s also not entirely clear whether the bean-counters will back the plan. JP’s electricity bill would obviously go up so electricity costs ultimately would have to be lower than gas spending to even make the conversion worthwhile. And don’t forget about the 90,000 motorbikes that mail deliverers rely on to navigate the narrow backstreets and speedily get the mail out, as well as the 2,000-odd giant diesel trucks that are involved in the logistics of moving huge sacks of mail from the hub to key delivery points. (JP only has 2,000 of these big trucks because it outsources most of this piece of the delivery chain.)
Other countries have toyed with the idea of using less-polluting vehicles. Last year, France’s La Post began testing electric-powered mail-delivery vans as part of a five-year plan to replace most of its 48,000 vehicles with electric cars. The U.S. Postal Service has had hundreds of electric mail-delivery vehicles in use for years, mostly in California, and in recent times has done small-scale tests with Segways and fuel-cell vehicles on a handful of routes. (It bought its first fleet of electric vehicles--350 electric vans from AMC—in 1975.)
Two factors give this project a good shot at getting the green light: Japan’s efforts to cut back on greenhouse gas emissions and the head of JP’s background in carmaking. JP is big enough that it could tip the scales in favor of a government-funded program to build a national network of electric recharging stations. That could then drive consumer demand for electric vehicles. It might also help Japan meet its difficult-to-attain emissions reductions targets. The fact that JP is run by former Toyota exec Norio Kitamura means that the postal group's top management is likely enthusiastic about proceeding, if the economics make sense. My sense is that this is bound to happen at some point in the not-too-distant future; it’s mostly a matter of when and how.