TOKYO — Just over a decade ago, Nissan became the first automaker to offer a mass-produced car that ran on batteries alone. That hatchback, the Leaf, has been a smash hit, at least by electric car standards, with more than 500,000 sold by the end of last year.
But as the trail that Nissan blazed becomes increasingly crowded, Japan’s mighty auto industry is in danger of being left behind. While governments and automakers worldwide are staking out bold pledges to transition to electric-only vehicles, Japanese car companies and regulators are hedging their bets.
Japan dominates the global market for the current generation of climate-friendly vehicles — gasoline-electric hybrids — and hopes to leverage its huge investment in the technology for as long as possible. That short-term focus, however, leaves the country’s most important industry at risk of missing a transformative moment, said Masato Inoue, the original Leaf’s lead designer.
“When disruption happens, there’s always fear,” said Mr. Inoue, who retired from Nissan in 2014. But ready or not, he added, “a big wave of electric vehicles is really coming.”
became the first major automaker to declare that it would eliminate all tailpipe emissions from its cars, vowing to do so by 2035. Last week, Volvo moved to outdo its larger competitors by pledging to go electric-only by 2030.
In addition to traditional automakers, start-ups like the Chinese company Nio and titans of other industries like Apple are seeking pieces of the burgeoning market.
Automakers in the United States, China, Europe and South Korea are already sprinting past their Japanese competitors. Toyota did not release its first all-electric vehicle on the consumer market until early 2020, and then only in China. Honda is relying on G.M. to produce electric vehicles for the U.S. market.
conference in his capacity as head of the automotive association, Mr. Toyoda scoffed at the idea of Japan’s replacing hybrids with all-electric vehicles, accusing the Japanese media of inflating their commercial and environmental viability.