In the first deal to market roadworthy American-made electric vehicles in Japan, California-based U.S. Electricar Inc. and Itochu Corp., one of the world's largest trading companies, have formed a joint venture to target Tokyo's market for light delivery trucks.
The first models scheduled to be sold by Tokyo-based Itochu, until recently known as C. Itoh & Co., will be Grumman Corp. Long Life delivery trucks, which are widely used by the U.S. Postal Service, and Chevrolet S-10 pickups--both converted to run on electric batteries.
U.S. Electricar is also designing an electric vehicle from the ground up that it hopes to eventually sell in Japan.
"We're excited about this just from the viewpoint that a company of our size would not (otherwise) have looked at the international market . . . this early in our development," said Ted Morgan, chairman and chief executive of U.S. Electricar, which has converted more than 200 gasoline cars to run on electricity in the last 10 years. The fast-growing firm is headquartered in Santa Rosa and has production facilities in Los Angeles, Redlands, Hawaii and Florida.
The deal includes a $15-million investment in U.S. Electricar by Itochu, in exchange for a 4.5% ownership share.
Itochu's automobile group, already an international distributor for Mazda Motor Corp. and part owner of the Korean auto maker Kia Motors Corp., will market the vehicles in Japan. Another partner in the joint venture, Tokyo R&D, an engineering firm that has designed prototype electric vehicles for major Japanese auto makers, will evaluate the U.S. vehicles and help get them licensed for sale in Japan.
"This strategic alliance . . . (will) increase the global good by supplying pro-environmental technology and goods to the world," Motoyuki Katsube, a senior officer in Itochu's automobile division, said in a statement issued in Tokyo.
Morgan said the joint venture, to be called Japan Electricar Corp., will target commercial fleet operators because the infrastructure does not yet exist in Japan to support widespread private use of electric vehicles. Fleet vehicles generally return to the same facility at the end of the workday, simplifying maintenance and recharging.
There are no estimates yet of what the vehicles will cost in Japan. But U.S. Electricar is currently selling converted S-10 pickups and Geo Prisms for about $43,000 each. In quantities of 30 or more, fleets pay about $33,000 for the trucks and $29,000 for the cars.
Morgan estimated that the vehicles sold in Japan would have a range of 60 to 80 miles, depending on use, and cost 3 cents a mile to operate, compared to 8 cents a mile for gasoline-fueled vehicles.
Itochu, with 10,000 employees in 865 businesses around the world, has been particularly active in the U.S. entertainment industry and owns an interest in Time Warner Inc. The firm's 1993 revenue was $149.6 billion, according to the Japan Foreign Trade Council.
Apparently, the only other significant export to any nation of U.S. electric vehicles has been from an older California company based in Anaheim.
Taylor-Dunn Manufacturing Co. has sold hundreds of small electric vehicles in Japan, Hong Kong and elsewhere in Asia, but these have been off-road service vehicles for use in airports and similar work sites.