Japanese Earthquake Disrupts Electric Car Supply, Long-Term Effect Unknown

By · March 14, 2011

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A US Navy helicopter flies over the city of Sendai, Japan, to deliver more than 1,500 pounds of food to survivors of an 8.9 magnitude earthquake and a tsunami. (U.S. Navy photo)

The pictures are horrifying. The video sickening. With amazing power and speed entire cities have been wiped from the face of the Earth and more than 10,000 people have been killed. Whether through increased media coverage, increased population density, changes within the Earth's natural systems, or a combination of several things, this kind of natural disaster seems to have become more commonplace in the last decade—Indonesia, New Orleans, Haiti, New Zealand and others—but that fact doesn't lessen the impact when it happens.

And in Japan, as the nation comes to grips with the scope of the impact and the human toll, the country's industrial base has also been shaken. Although most of the southern industrial complexes were spared major damage, most Japanese carmakers have had their Japanese factories closed since the initial earthquake and subsequent tsunami happened on Friday to assess potential impacts to machinery, workers, supply chain logistics, and transportation infrastructure.

While it's still too early to determine what kinds of long-term effects the earthquake may have on getting Japanese-built vehicles into the United States and around the rest of the world, what is clear is that the supply of electric vehicles will be affected at least in the short term. Both the Nissan LEAF and Mitsubishi i-MiEV are exclusively made in Japan—no matter where they are sold around the world.

Nissan LEAF Impact

Nissan says that a shipment of 600 LEAFs bound for the U.S. left port in Japan on March 10th, just prior to the earthquake, but that any future impact to LEAF deliveries is being evaluated as the situation becomes clearer. It is unknown if any other LEAFs had been stockpiled at the docks waiting to be loaded onto ships, or if those vehicles were damaged in the earthquake and subsequent tsunami.

The LEAF has struggled with a lack of availability and slow ramp-up since it was launched in December. Recently it seemed as if things were beginning to turn around for the LEAF in the U.S. though, with Nissan saying by the end of March more than 10,000 will have been built for delivery around the world and 4,000 a month would start popping off the assembly line in Oppama, Japan. But Nissan has had the Oppama plant closed since Friday to assess damage and the latest word is that it will not reopen until Wednesday, March 16th. Based on the above numbers, every day the plant is closed is equivalent to roughly 120-130 LEAFs not getting built.

With three nuclear facilities either completely shut down or operating at drastically reduced capacity, Japan is under rolling blackouts, with some estimates saying power may only be available for 60% of the time. In order to conserve electricity under the rolling blackouts the country is now experiencing, Nissan has also suspended the use of air conditioning at many of its buildings—including its world headquarters—as well as ordered all of its dealerships to dim lights and turn of electric billboards.

Mitsubishi i-MiEV Impact

Although the Mitsubishi i-MiEV isn't yet available for sale in U.S. (set for a late 2011 on-sale date, ordering open soon), it is available in other parts of the world on a low-volume basis right now. As with the LEAF, all of the i-MiEVs currently built for delivery anywhere on the globe are built in Japan. Mitsubishi has also had its i-MiEV-producing factories closed since Friday and currently plans to reopen them on Wednesday, March 16th.

Long-Term Impacts

Although the events will impact short term delivery of these vehicles, one of the biggest questions remaining is what can be expected in the months ahead. Clearly some ports were damaged by the Tsunami and some factory equipment broken—many cars were also likely damaged in port. In addition, the vast supply chains required to build modern vehicles are surely disrupted.

With three nuclear facilities down and a badly damaged electricity distribution network, Japan will likely take a long time to begin providing power consistently again. Without constant power, the factories will be forced to reduce output. Although everything is far from clear, we may be looking at some kind of impact on U.S. LEAF deliveries until the Smyrna, Tenn., factory comes online at the end of 2012. Perhaps the events will even force Nissan to step up construction of that battery plant and start U.S. production of the LEAF earlier than planned?

The effect on Mitsubishi is harder to gauge, but it may face the same uphill battle that Nissan will when the i-MiEV goes on sale in the U.S. at the end of 2011.

Image Credit: Attribution
Some rights reserved by Official U.S. Navy Imagery


· · 7 years ago

Thanks for this update, Nick. The only thing I can add is to post
a link to the American Red Cross, where Japan disaster relief
donations can be made . . .


· · 7 years ago

Any status on AESC in Zama city? They produce the battery pack for the LEAF and if they're offline, then the LEAF can't be built.

· · 7 years ago

indyflick, no official word yet, but given that Zama is south of Tokyo it's likely that it was spared any major damage. However it will be subject to the same rolling blackouts which could be incredibly complicating for a battery manufacturing facility.

· · 7 years ago

Thanks Nick. I wonder if AESC could run their plant off of Li-ion batteries? :-)

· Warren (not verified) · 7 years ago

"I wonder if AESC could run their plant off of Li-ion batteries? :-)"

Yes. They can charge them off the hot air from the EV community.

· · 7 years ago

Toyota cuts operations in N. America

"Toyota Motor says it will partly suspend production at its 14 factories in North America following the massive earthquake and tsunami that hit northeastern Japan.

Toyota has halted operations at all of its factories in Japan due to damage at the maker's subsidiary parts and assembly plants in disaster-hit areas.

Toyota's New York office said on Tuesday that due to difficulty in securing parts from Japan, the firm will temporarily halt weekday overtime production and Saturday operations.

Toyota's global output could be affected if stoppage of parts production in Japan continues for a long time."

· · 7 years ago

[9:03 a.m. ET Friday, 10:03 p.m. Friday in Tokyo] "Toyota's popular Prius hybrid car may be in short supply in the coming months, Time reports. The car's batteries are made in a factory near Sendai while the vehicle itself is assembled near Tokyo. Although both plants were not damaged in the quake, Toyota does not know when production can resume because of the reduction in power supplies and rolling blackouts now imposed in the affected areas. Time, citing Autodata, says there were 18,000 Priuses available in the U.S. at the beginning of the month."

· Barbara (not verified) · 7 years ago

Thoughtful and classy email I got from Nissan re delivery of our leaf: Barbara, like all of us, we are sure you are concerned with recent events in Japan over the last week. We wanted to take a moment to let you know that your Nissan LEAF™ left Japan before the earthquake and tsunami occurred, and even with all that's going on, it is on its way and should arrive on schedule.

At Nissan, we are asking owners and friends to help support the relief efforts in Japan. We are doing our part by pledging $1,000,000. We have already made an immediate donation of $500,000 to the American Red Cross. And when you give through this e-mail, we will match your donation dollar-for-dollar for the first $500,000 in contributions. Thank you for helping us help those in need.

Donate Now


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