Electric-car range: why Japanese needs differ so radically from the U.S.

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2016 Nissan Leaf SL fast-charging at NRG evGo Freedom Station, Hudson Valley, NY, Dec 2015

2016 Nissan Leaf SL fast-charging at NRG evGo Freedom Station, Hudson Valley, NY, Dec 2015

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It was one of the new battery-electric vehicles anticipated for this year, a mid-size sedan from a global maker that remains the second highest-volume hybrid maker in the world.

Then the news hit earlier this week: the all-electric Honda Clarity EV would have a rated battery range around ... 80 miles.

From the justifications they offered, we surmise the communications staff at American Honda Motor Company know they have a challenge on their hands.

DON'T MISS: Honda Clarity EV electric car to have only 80 miles of range: report

But assuming it's roughly accurate, the 80-mile range of the upcoming Clarity EV brings to the fore an uncomfortable truth for U.S. buyers.

That is that the needs of drivers in Japan differ radically from those in North America—and often take precedence in the eyes of product planners.

That conclusion follows discussion in recent months with executives at two Asian automakers, both of whom declined to be identified or go on the record.

2017 Honda Clarity Fuel Cell

2017 Honda Clarity Fuel Cell

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And the electric-car range issue highlights the extreme U.S. reliance on personal vehicles for all transportation short of that provided by airplanes.

In both Japan and almost every European country, residents have access to clean, reliable, pervasive mass transit both for urban travel and, crucially, travel between city pairs up to 300 miles apart.

But the frequent trains and interurban bus services regularly used by tens of millions of middle-class Japanese and Europeans are almost entirely absent from U.S. travel plans.

READ THIS: Ford plans 300-mile electric SUV, hybrid F-150 and Mustang

Outside Amtrak's Northeast Corridor and the West Coast, train travel is either a slow and scenic holiday option or completely absent.

And when was the last time most U.S. readers of this site rode a Greyhound, Trailways, or other bus service?

The presence of reliable and affordable mass transit helps cut the average distance traveled in personal vehicles outside North America significantly.

Chevrolet Bolt EV self-driving prototype

Chevrolet Bolt EV self-driving prototype

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According to a study of eight industrialized countries seven years ago, the U.S. leads all large nations in the miles covered each year by vehicles on its roads.

The average U.S. resident travels 8,100 miles a year in vehicles—or 22 miles a day. Four-fifths of U.S. cars travel less than 40 miles a day, in fact.

In Japan, the comparable figure is 2,500 miles—or about 6.8 miles a day.

CHECK OUT: Half Of Japan Now Drives High MPG, Low Power Kei Minicars (Aug 2011)

For the one-fifth of U.S. trips that exceed 40 miles, though, an electric car with a range of 80 miles just doesn't cut it when you factor in high-speed highway travel, cold weather, and public charging infrastructure that varies greatly depending on location.

In Japan, trips over 40 miles are more likely to be covered by train than by car. And large swathes of the country's most densely populated areas now have pervasive DC fast-charging sites for electric cars.

Which is why, in the eyes of Japanese automakers who may not lift their eyes from the home market when considering their greenest models, 80 miles for a battery-electric car may seem perfectly reasonable.

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