How do you sell cars to young consumers who seem to have no use for one? It's a question that's dogged the automobile industry for years now. For the past week and a half, Japanese manufacturers have hosted the biennial Tokyo Motor Show, filling Tokyo Big Site convention centre with their latest ideas for solving this existential problem.
In cities such as Tokyo, New York and London, owning a car is a luxury. I can't speak for everyone but it's been a while since I drove to the grocery store for milk. Plenty of other people in Tokyo cope just fine without a car while saving themselves the crushing costs of petrol, parking and maintenance.
While the engineers are busy coming up with technologies to make cars that can drive and park without anyone behind the wheel, the rest of the industry is searching for a way to stir an emotional response from consumers. Rarely is it as simple as nice curves or fancy gadgetry. I've been to enough shows to know what to expect: pie-in-the-sky concepts, pole-thin fashion models and jumbo TV screens. The spectacle appeals to car buffs (and a few creepy Japanese men) but it misses the mark with most other consumers.
In some ways the Tokyo Motor Show was straight out of that mould. Toyota unveiled the FV2, an electric vehicle that has a raised windshield that the driver can use as a display to look up traffic conditions, sports scores and the weather. Daihatsu featured the quirky FC Deco Deck, a cube with a wraparound window perched on a contoured platform with a hydrogen-fuel-cell powertrain. Honda, Nissan, BMW, Volkswagen, Lexus, Volvo and Smart presented both high-octane supercars and zero-emissions prototypes.
Yet judging by the huge turnout all week, Tokyo has succeeded at creating a show with broader appeal. There's an outdoor track where you can take vehicles for a spin, a Tomica stand selling toys, videogame pods to try Sony Playstation's Gran Turismo racing simulator and the Smart Mobility City area with its wacky ideas for digitally linking cars and homes.
The cars themselves were different, too; less whimsical, somehow. Toyota gave as much of the spotlight to its national taxicab concept, JPN Taxi, as its prototype design for a fuel-cell car. The taxicab has the bulbous silhouette of London cabs but with automatic sliding rear doors and touch screens for the driver.
Nissan premiered its IDx, small, two-door prototypes that were reminiscent of old, boxy Datsun cars but with a sleeker profile. They had interior details such as denim upholstery or race car seats that came from spending hours asking fashion-conscious consumers and videogamers for design feedback. Satoru Tai, the project's design director, described the IDx as being for people who aren't that interested in cars.
It must be a relief for Tokyo Motor Show organisers: the show almost didn't survive the economic downturn in 2009. This year the show has moved to the cosier Big Site venue closer to the downtown area. The industry faces tough challenges but for now the Japanese automakers are thinking outside the box a lot more. Perhaps that will translate to more foot traffic in the showrooms.
Kenji Hall is Monocle's Asia editor at large.