Chestnut sweets and Gifu’s all-EV vision for 2050

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My first connection with Gifu was in the autumn of 2015, having finished some meetings early and waiting for my pre-booked shinkansen train out of Nagoya and back to Tokyo. At the station shop, some interestingly-shaped traditional Japanese sweets called Kurikinton were in season and I duly snapped up a pack of 6 to try back home. In terms of its smooth yet slightly crumbly texture, refined fragrant taste and the minimalist choice of ingredients (chestnut, sugar, nothing else), it’s become one of my favorite Japanese sweets. Reading up on the history of this sweet created over a century ago, its rapid popularization across Japan in the late 1980s led to a massive rise in the demand of chestnuts which was unfulfilled by local production. The Kyushu region in the south of Japan took up the challenge, and today most kurikinton are made with chestnuts from the south, while Gifu produce remains highly prized but a minority in terms of volume. A good hour and a half drive headed northeast out of Nagoya on the mountainous Chuo expressway is Eno city at the center of this tradition. It’s a personal goal to visit there at some point in time, and try out the multiple variations on the simple recipe. But as per a recent article in the Chunichi newspaper, while the local population continues its prized tradition with its meticulously cultivated chestnuts, the workforce population continues to age. So does Gifu prefecture as a whole, facing the dual challenges of managing an aging agri-centric population while growing tourist revenues to compensate.

Already back in 2011, the local government had put its mind to building a new regional strategy and set out its vision for 2050. One of the key areas was to replace 83% of its expected 1.2m vehicle fleet to meet a target of 1m EVs by 2050, up from a mere 1,500 in 2013. At the same time, plans were made to boost the charging infrastructure from 20 to 500 stations across the prefecture by 2050. An ambitious plan back then: how far have we come in the last 6 years? With 2017 as a good mid-pt between the 2013 and 2020 targets, where 2020 would see 150,000 EV registrations up from 1,500 in 2013. According to the site GoGoEV, over 2009 to 2015 there was a cumulative total of 2,960 EV/PHV registrations in Gifu, while 430 charging stations are currently up and running the prefecture. Other sites (like EV Smart) show only 420 charging stations in operation, but we’re in the ballpark. Interestingly while the number of fuel stations in Gifu has been decreasing year on year for the last 15 years, reaching an all-time low of 798 in 2015, charging station development has sped ahead of the 2020 plans almost hitting the 2050 target 33 years ahead of schedule! It is very possible that existing fuel stations with a decent amount of regular or hybrid/plug-in EV traffic are doubling up on their capacity, while other more rural areas are just shutting down due to lack of business. In any case, while the charging infrastructure is developing nicely, the EV/PHEV vehicle registration numbers are still 30 times below what they should have been at this point in the planning cycle. Tax incentives, roadside experimentation and education/promotion would be good places to help get the schedule back on track.

In parallel, Japan’s Ministry of Land and Transport has been actively promoting electric vehicles via micromobility deployments where funding is available to cover up to 1/3 the cost of vehicles and 1/3 the cost of setting up charging stations. One project making use of this setup is the Nagatetsu railway project, where the rural railway line teamed up with Nissan to offer visitors the opportunity of visiting the area via Nissan’s two-seater all-electric “New Mobility” vehicles boasting a 100km range. The project has been ongoing since end November 2016 and is scheduled to finish at the end of December 2017, with interested visitors able to book their vehicle on their phone/pc and then get off the train to pickup their vehicle. According to project’s official website, the latest campaign from September to November suggests visitors use these microvehicles to weave in and out of the streets of Hida Takayama with its vibrant ancient festivals, picturesque wooden houses, and nearby pristine natural environment. There is little data on how well or otherwise the project has done to-date, but it would be interesting to see how different this experiment fared versus other micromobility experiments, such as what we covered previously in Okayama.

Both topics of strong EV adoption and vehicle automation are very likely coming together in the most recent round of feasibility studies announced in July 2017 by the Ministry of Land and Transport. Gifu was named at no.2 on the list. The scope of work will be to develop a feasibility study with a concrete business model, focused on the Meiho michinoeki (or roadside station) deep in the mountainous area of Gujo City. Like at most other michinoeki in the prefecture, the michinoeki all include prominent EV charging areas that are easy to use and access, according to a quick browse of driver comments online. Headed west it is a 15km drive to the nearest railway station of Gujo Hachiman, headed east it’s a 40km drive at best to the other railway station of Hida Hagiwara. These could both be starting points for visitors similar to the Hida Takayama project we looked at earlier, although the range with the Nissan vehicle could be problematic. 100km will only barely make the longer round trip.

It is unclear whether just extending the Hida Takayama project will be sufficient to develop a sustainable local business model and feasibility study. And because of that it somehow feels that we could be waiting a while for an automated driving experiment to see the light of day. What is clear is that the prefecture is focused on switching decisively to electric-related vehicles, and they’re not turning back. As the authors write up their study, hopefully they can study similar experiments and models from other prefectures from Fukui to Ibaraki and beyond. The ultimate goal for Gifu will be to find its own particular combination of agriculture, industry, logistics, tourism, workforce and technology to help it transform its rural aging economy into a highly-mobile robot-enhanced future for all age groups. This should prepare Japan well for the mid 21st century when most other global economies start grappling with the topic of accelerated aging themselves, potentially creating a future market for Japanese mobility products and commerce.