Tokyo Puts Prototypes on Display
Battling a drop in sales, car manufacturers are gauging public reactions to their designs
CHIBA, JAPAN — TAKE pity, if possible, on Tsutomu Aoto, designer of autos.While some may chuckle at the coincidence of his name and occupation, his real worry right now is what people will think of his futuristic "concept car," which is fresh from the design lab of Honda Motor Co. Mr. Aoto stands apprehensively inside the Honda exhibit at the Tokyo Motor Show. He is watching carefully how young Japanese react to a very narrow car on display. It is dubbed the the EP-X, or Efficient Personal Experimental. A Honda brochure states that it has technology to "step in when conditions exceed human capability to react." The tear-shaped, super-light aluminum vehicle draws long stares from young men who admire it for its Top-Gun look. An oval glass roof pops up to the side like a jet fighter. The driver sits alone in a "cockpit," set in the middle, with a color liquid-crystal display for a dashboard. The lone passenger sits behind. Never before has Honda put out its test designs for public viewing. But the Tokyo Motor Show has become the world's premier exhibition of both production cars as well as vehicles still under research. And at this year's show, open between Oct. 6 and Nov. 8, Honda and the other eight Japanese carmakers were eager not only to show off their latest technological innovations but also to boost slagging sales. Sales are down 6 percent in Japan from a year ago, the first such drop in 11 years. "All the Japanese carmakers are looking for some sort of future," said Aoto. In the West, he explained, designers aim at making a car an effective tool of transport. But in Japan, public trains are fast and efficient for getting around. "So why have a car?" asks Aoto. "We are forced to come up with cars that sell lifestyle," he adds. The Japanese auto industry decided collectively that the lifestyle sought by young Japanese is environment-friendly and fun. Where once 80 percent of Japanese cars were white, for example, suddenly earth colors (especially green) are becoming popular. Some of the research cars have ozone-friendly coolants for air conditioning, without the chlorofluorocarbons. Many companies are trying out materials that can be recycled. The show's theme is: "Discovering a new relationship: man, car, and earth as one." At the Mazda display, for example, giant television images of whales, sunsets, and trees are shown in front of the new cars. Honda's theme is: "For man and mother earth." "We are trying to present the future of cars as bright, not gloomy," says Aoto. "Young Japanese now think they will live only short lives.... There is much talk of mortality as people think of the worsening environment." Owning a car in Tokyo today means waiting in three-hour traffic jams on the weekend, paying $1,400 parking tickets, and not even being able to buy a car until you can prove that you have a parking space for it. Until the recent slump, auto sales had boomed for two years as car buying became a trend among the newly wealthy of Japan. In 1989, passenger-car sales jumped by 18.5 percent, and then another 15.9 percent last year. Japan now has the second largest number of motor vehicles of any nation, behind the United States. Imports of foreign luxury cars also boomed during those two years, which helps explain why this show attracted 38 foreign carmakers from 8 countries, many with their own concept cars. "This is a designer's dream show," comments Daimler-Benz designer Gunter Holzel. A General Motors engineer, James Hall, says, "You look at those Japanese concept cars and you think they are all fun." Nissan, for instance, offers the ultimate in open-air motoring. Its sporty, two-seater Duad has no door and no roof. You just step into the low-riding roadster. Toyota's Avalon also has no roof. When parked, the windshield and roof fold down to become one with the body, preventing easy theft. "The cabinless entity cannot be entered, much less driven," a Toyota brochure explains. When opened, however, the car "is an eye-pleasing objet d'art." "What could be better than an active weekend spent at a chic resort with another couple with the same interests as yours?" the Toyota hype continues. "That's the way it's done in the States." Avalon designer Masahiko Kawazu says the car is cool and machine-like when closed, but more human when opened. Toyota also offers a new "limousine" (actually a van) for the young male executive who "resists being driven everywhere." It includes a fax, computer, mini-bar, stereo, video, and a window curtain that can be closed with an electric switch. Another Honda concept car is called the FS-X (futuristic sports experimental), which also happens to be the initials of Japan's new jet fighter. It is described as having an "aggressively low and wide" body that reflects "the driver's personality," and a "daringly designed front nose." Yamaha introduced an "ecological transporter," (an electric scooter) called The Frog, designed to help rid urban life of noise, exhaust, and difficult parking. Nissan's Tri-X, which runs on methanol and gasoline and uses a remote control key device to open, close, and lock the door, is billed as providing "responsible beauty." The company also offers a research station wagon called the Cocoon, designed to meet the needs of Japan's aging society. Three sets of seats allow for an extended-family ride of parents, kids, and grandparents. The door is unlocked by fingerprint recognition. Perhaps the most adventurous concept car is Toyota's AXV-III, the "commuter car of the future." It uses a laser and computer to tell a driver when the car is out of lane or too close to a vehicle in front. It also can automatically park a car into a space. "Measuring the distance is not difficult," says designer Toshio Umemura. "But we're not so sure that the computer can operate the engine trustfully." The car also comes with a navigation system that talks. Isuzu Motor Co. displayed an "urban" research car with a fifth wheel at the rear that helps move the car sideways into a parking space. Dubbed "the intellectual vehicle," it is designed to save energy, the earth, and "city space." The design of Mitsubishi Motor's HSR-III car (HSR stands for "human science research") is said to "take man as the bench-mark criterion." The car has no foot pedals. All controls are done by hand instruments that do not "strain the driver's nervous resources unduly." The driver also gets extra legroom. Sensors on the HSR-III steering wheel also monitor the driver's level of alertness, and turn up the air conditioner or blink warning lights. The car also has an auto-drive system for heavy traffic and long-distance driving and can read speed-limit signs to control the speed. The rear end is elastic and reshapes itself into an airfoil as the car gains speed. Mini-cars have been the hottest sellers in Japan over the past few years, especially among urban female workers. This year, Subaru is testing out the Hanako (a common name for women) as a two-seat "casual car" that expresses "not only fun and cuteness, but stable and graceful prettiness based on an adult's sense of value." Mitsubishi's proposed car for women, the mS.1000, is billed as having a compact body with "the friendly interior brimming with casually pleasing touches." One touch is that the two rear seats slightly face each other, "to make conversation easier." In sharp contrast to all the Japanese novelties is one foreign car at the show. The Alfa Romeo's ever-popular Spider has changed few of its original design lines. The classic sports car first appeared almost 30 years ago.