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Japan's kei car is the embodiment of practical transportation. In spite of strict laws that dictate aspects of the genre's design, it has successfully mobilized millions. Can anything be learned from this seemingly niche category of cars? If so, would it be possible to capitalize on its virtues to aid the United States' automotive market?

What is a kei car:
The term "kei car" is translated to "light automobile" and it represents a specific segment of vehicles that are very popular in Japan. The kei car's outer dimensions and engine specifications are regulated by the country's government, but (perhaps unexpectedly) has proven to be incredibly empowering to the motoring public. Unlike cars in America, the limits on power (63hp) and engine size (660cc) enable lower tax and insurance rates for the vehicles. Obviously, as the premier examples of economical personal transport, maintenance and consumable costs are significantly lower than conventional passenger cars. The lower vehicle prices and operating costs provide Japanese households with more fiscal flexibility than those in the United States.

Why the kei car could work in the United States:
A major hinderance to household economies in America is the disproportionate allotment of personal capital to the automobile. At first glance, fuel and consumable costs may not seem detrimental on a yearly basis. However, the burden is commonly felt on a weekly basis coinciding with payday and billing cycles. In a society with lackluster public transportation, high insurance rates, considerable fuel costs and high cost of living the result is countless citizens abandoning vehicle ownership altogether. Ride-sharing services like Uber have gained favor amongst the road going public at an astonishing rate. As the masses continue to trend away from personal vehicle ownership there will be a vacuum in the marketplace. What can be done?

This vacuum will be filled by competitive automakers who are willing to adapt and capitalize on the changing status-quo. The new vehicle landscape will be populated by a new breed of car that will maximize profits and value for all the parties involved. Of course, this is the perfect place for the American kei car. The key is the efficiency of the vehicle and its packaging. Regardless of the powertrain; whether small capacity internal combustion, hybrid, electric or hydrogen, the fundamental virtues of the kei car will remain the same. A lightweight car with a commodious interior and low running costs will always be in demand. It's an intelligent platform that can change with the needs of society. This theory has been proven over the course of nearly seventy years in Japan.

How it can be accomplished:
The cars should optimally be manufactured as joint ventures between multiple manufacturers to reduce cost as much as possible. This process has precedent in the auto industry since the forties and has continued to this day. During the last World War, factories diverted their manufacturing efforts from civilian to military vehicles. American Bantam Car Company, Willys-Overland and Ford all produced Willys MBs (the Jeep) to help in the war efforts. Rather than progressing towards a shared goal only under duress, why not work together to solve multiple, peacetime problems simultaneously?

The answer is a shared platform with shared components and specifications. If General Motors and Toyota (or Subaru and Toyota) can do it, so can the rest of the industry. This isn't a platform designed to compete for market share, but rather one to empower and learn from. The goal is to redefine the mobilization a more conscious and dynamic population of motorists. These motorists are taking a more active role in both their communities and regional economies.

An American-spec kei car could be marginally bigger to meet crash requirements. It may require 750cc-1000cc to accomplish similar goals as its brother in Japan, but it can be done. The development and production costs can be offset by shared tooling and parts. Yet, the shared vision could produce a line of more globally competitive (lower MSRP) cars and higher volume fleet sales.

This shouldn't be a debate, but rather an obligation. The technology and resources are available now more than ever. It's simply a matter of utilizing the right talent and the right direction.

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