TOKYO -- Today's electric vehicles still fall short of consumers’ expectations for long-distance driving. Many industry experts believe that slow progress in battery technology prevents electric vehicles from penetrating a range of automotive markets.
Soichiro Fukutake, chairman of electric-vehicle startup SIM-Drive, thinks otherwise.
The year-old startup, known for its use of in-wheel motor technologies, has become one of the brightest prospects among the high-tech ventures to have emerged in Japan in recent years. With the outspoken Fukutake—whose net worth exceeds $1.4 billion—having taken a minority stake in SIM-Drive and joined as chairman, the company is garnering even more attention both within and beyond Japan’s auto industry.
Fukutake built his fortune as chairman of Benesse Holdings, a correspondence education and publishing company that also owns Berlitz language schools worldwide. Yoichiro Hata, editor-in-chief of EE Times Japan, sat down with Fukutake to discuss the future of electric cars and in-wheel motor technologies.
Soichiro Fukutake, chairman of SIM-Drive
EE Times Japan (EETJ)
: You are the chairman of Benesse Holdings, the largest education company in Japan. How did you get interested in electric vehicles, and why did you become an investor in SIM-Drive?
: I see the world changing.
In many respects, the auto industry is the most conservative and the least innovative industry of all. As far as manufacturing is concerned, the industry is still very much vertically consolidated, and automotive technology continues to depend on its old engine-based architecture. [In contrast,] take a look at railroad trains; they have evolved from burning coal to running by linear motors. Airplanes have shifted from propellers to jet engines.
While I was pondering the future of the automotive industry, I happened to meet Keio University professor [and SIM-Drive founder] Hiroshi Shimizu. He’s been doing R&D on “in-wheel motor” technologies for 30 years. [The in-wheel motor, sometimes known as the wheel hub motor, is an electric motor incorporated into the wheel hub.]
I had an opportunity to drive Prof. Shimizu’s in-wheel motorcar, Eliica [short for “electric lithium-ion car”]. I was really impressed with its inventiveness. I’m convinced that this will change everything.
Yes, I had driven electric vehicles before, but I had never been so moved. So I decided to help establish a company with Prof. Shimizu in August 2009. It was named SIM-Drive, for Shimizu In-Wheel Motor Drive.
I am very concerned about global warming as chairman of Benesse Holdings, whose main mission is to educate the children of the future and take care of them. I don’t see the global warming issue as an isolated incident or as a short-term problem. Converting currently existing automobiles into electric vehicles represents a significant first step in solving the problem, and one that lets a lot of people throughout the world contribute [to the solution].
: Battery technologies are considered to be the key solution for improving the performance of electric vehicles, are they not?
: I am not interested in batteries.
Enough engineers at major companies have been improving rechargeable battery performance for automobiles. I don’t think you need to worry about it. The big issue for batteries is not their performance but their cost.
I prefer leasing rechargeable batteries to consumers. A battery in an electric vehicle is going to wear out in about five years; why not lease it? Batteries too depleted for use in electric vehicles are reusable in other applications.
If we start leasing a 2 million-yen [$23,000] rechargeable battery module, instead of selling it, we should be able to reduce the battery costs by 90 percent or more over time.
The key to expanding the leasing model for rechargeable batteries on the mass market is standardization. If batteries are standard, the lease market grows quickly, and costs drop dramatically. I find it odd that people, when discussing the rechargeable battery, never mention standardization.