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Going green to save the economy

  • 2010/11/25
The Green Mobility Collaboration Initiative is Nagoya's latest attempt to save Japan's automobile industry

Japan is currently facing an unprecedented crisis. The automobile industry, which accounts for a tenth of the national economy, is recovering from one of the worst financial recessions in history. Meanwhile, the country is dealing with a succession of problems, including an aging population, rising petrol prices and increasing competition from neighboring countries. Under these circumstances, the government of Japan, academia and the automobile industry are now working closely to come up with new strategies that can secure the long-term stability of Japan's economy.

In October 2009, Nagoya University held the first Next-Generation Vehicle Regional Industry-Academia-Government Forum. The aim of the forum was to draw together representatives from the three sectors to discuss the development of next-generation vehicles, including electric and hybrid vehicles, and ways to evolve the industry so that small- and medium-sized companies can go through the transition to become next-generation manufacturers.

"We asked ourselves 'what type of industry can support our economy?'" says Takashi Miyata, vice president of Nagoya University and director of the Industry-Academia-Government Cooperation Initiative. "This is a critical time for the Japanese economy and the university has a social responsibility to help. We thought that in the future, green innovation will become important for Japan, so we proposed a program to assist the development of next-generation vehicles."

Miyata expects that electric and hybrid vehicles will occupy 10-20% and 40-50% of the total market in Japan by 2020. He also predicts that next-generation vehicles will occupy 20% of the total market by 2020, and 30-40% by 2030. The prospects for next-generation vehicles are so positive, in fact, that Nagoya University was awarded a budget of US$15 million USD from the Japanese government to set up a program called the Green Mobility Cooperation Initiative.

The most important objective of such an initiative, of course, is the development of next-generation vehicles, but for now, Miyata has a more urgent goal -- the establishment of a central building that houses a diversity of technological and industrial projects. The central building, called the Green Vehicle Materials Research and Development Center, will have laboratories dedicated to lightweight materials, rechargeable batteries, information technology and traffic control systems. "Lightweight materials and rechargeable batteries are key factors to the success of next-generation vehicles. Our main focus will be in these two areas," says Miyata.

Nagoya University might not have the facilities to produce cars, but it has the ability to produce fundamental technologies and seeds of research. With human resources from different fields and the diverse range of projects being conducted in the same building, it is anticipated that interdisciplinary interaction will help generate innovative results.

Nagoya University might not have the facilities to produce cars, but it has the ability to produce fundamental technologies and seeds of research. With human resources from different fields and the diverse range of projects being conducted in the same building, it is anticipated that interdisciplinary interaction will help generate innovative results.

The Green Mobility Cooperation Initiative program is important not only for the university, but also for Nagoya and for all of Japan. The Japanese automobile industry traditionally has a vertical organizational structure. Toyota is at the top of the hierarchy and small- and medium-sized companies are at the bottom. The introduction of next-generation vehicles is going to change this organizational structure into a more horizontal network of subcontractors producing specific parts or modules for Toyota to assemble.

"We want to keep Nagoya as a manufacturing center," says Miyata. "However, the economy in this region is based on the traditional vertical organizational structure, under which it would be difficult to keep all of the production in Nagoya. In order to survive, small- and medium-sized companies will need to develop their own individual skills and technologies. Our job is to help companies overcome this problem."

Miyata is still looking for a solution. Between October 2009 and March 2010, he has held six meetings with representatives from the automobile industry, academia and government to discuss the problem. "I want to say to big companies that they need to understand the importance of collaboration with academia. The Green Mobility Cooperation Initiative is the platform that will help them survive, and even thrive in the changing economy," says Miyata.

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