The FCEV deployment in the Japanese transport and mobility sector: a revolution?

Publication Type:

Conference Paper


Gerpisa colloquium, Paris (2019)


Among the new technologies developed in the transport and mobility sector, hydrogen and fuel cell applications are increasingly promoted. Nowadays, Japan is one of the leading countries in this field. Through the « Hydrogen Society » program, it aims to massively introduce hydrogen and fuel cell within its society. According to the government, this energy carrier should represent the core of the Japanese future energy system, helping to store and distribute energy, but also to decarbonize transport and mobility.

According to the official roadmap, deployment targets are quite ambitious: around 40.000 Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle (FCEV) by 2020, 200.000 by 2025 and 800.000 by 2030. Concerning the refueling infrastructures, around 160 hydrogen stations would be implemented by 2020, 320 by 2025 and 900 by 2030 (METI/ANRE (2017). But, if regarding the current state of the Japanese FCEV market, we can legitimately question the ability of Japan to reach such targets. Indeed, while only some 3000 FCEV currently are on the Japanese roads and some 100 hydrogen refueling stations are opened, a drastic accelerating of the deployment would be necessary to achieve the objectives. Tokyo Olympics in 2020, that the Japanese government is willing to use as a showcase for its Hydrogen Society including FCEV transportation means, might give a kind of impetus for the development of such disruptive technologies. There is however no evidence that what often is presented, at least in the media, as a technological revolution will not face difficulties to be extended to a broader extend.

After having introduced the Japanese roadmap as well as the present market situation, the paper will focus on two main issues. First, based on the literature on disruptive technologies, and focusing on potential barriers or lock-in benefiting to fossil fuel (Bento and Angelier, 2009) and on the mechanisms that could benefit to evolutive technologies (Geels, 2005), it will analyze the elements that make the FCEV and refueling infrastructure disruptive in a way to point out the obstacles that could hinder or even prevent their deployment. Second, it will tend to see to what extent Japanese ambitious objectives can represent a threat for the success of the Hydrogen Society. Indeed, during the 2000, hydrogen and fuel cell have already experienced a hype phenomenon (Bakker, 2009; Bakker and Budde, 2012). Results quite delayed or even never achieved have generated disillusionment, damaging credibility and legitimacy of experimentations and projects, and leading to question the techno-economic viability of hydrogen. Facing such a recurrent optimism again, at least in Japan where it appears excessive in light of the present situation (Hasegawa et al., 2015a, Hasegawa et al., 2015b), is bringing some doubt on the feasibility of the whole program, leading to consider that FCEV could be an eternally emergent technology (Fréry, 2009). The paper will finally discuss an interesting paradox. Whereas the FCEV appears as a disruptive technological application, its deployment seems as relying on the ability of Japanese actors to initiate a transitory policy instead of the actual revolutionary one, meaning that instead of a raw and sudden large deployment which faces too many obstacles, the strategy might turn to implementing more limited policies with less ambitious targets, ie. to support FCEV first for collective transport (buses), long distance goods transportation (medium and heavy trucks…), or industrial vehicles (forklift…). By focusing more on the professional vehicles market and less on the private cars’ one, Japan could capitalize on past and present researches and experimentation while overcoming some obstacles such as for example the cost of investment in infrastructures or the production of hydrogen.


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