Once a tech leader, Japan’s auto industry plays catch-up

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly implied Mitsubishi was partnered with Toyota. Mitsubishi is actually aligned with Nissan.

MINE, Japan -- Mazda's powertrain guru, Mitsuo Hitomi, can't count how many times he nearly threw in the towel while working on the company's new compression-ignition Skyactiv-X engine. It was Mazda's moonshot effort to deliver more fuel efficiency and power, a mission that bigger rivals are struggling to bring to an intensifying world market.

But a sense of crisis spurred Hitomi and his team forward. As a result, pint-sized Mazda will soon roll out not only the new powerplant, but also a wave of next-generation powertrain technologies.

The competitive challenge is not merely Mazda's. As Japan's carmakers host the Tokyo Motor Show this week, Mazda's urgency epitomizes the rush by Japan's auto industry to play catch-up in an era of technological change.

"We thought if we failed at this, it was all over," Hitomi recalled. "That's the level of pressure."

New demands for autonomous cars, electrification, artificial intelligence and new mobility are squeezing Japan's automakers like never before. Their solutions for tackling the challenges will be on full display in Tokyo, but the country's carmakers are in some ways just starting to respond.

Honda Motor Co. unveiled a detailed electric vehicle and autonomous driving road map only last summer after setting up an AI and robotics laboratory earlier in the year.

Longtime EV skeptic Toyota Motor Corp. established an EV division just 11 months ago. And despite huge investment, it has been slow to bring self-driving functions to the mass market. Toyota suddenly finds itself scrambling to find technology partners, no matter how small or obscure, who have the computing expertise the old-school automaker lacks.

Smaller rivals Subaru and Mitsubishi remain constrained by tight purse strings. Their best hope, for the time being, seems to be sheltering under the umbrellas of larger partners Toyota and Nissan.

Nissan Motor Co. is arguably the Japanese pioneer in EVs and autonomous driving. But even its ambitions seem diluted on the global stage by the onslaught of EVs from European rivals, self-driving technology from Silicon Valley and ride-hailing ventures from Detroit.

Toyota Chairman Takeshi Uchiyamada perhaps best summed up the prevailing angst.

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