While Tsurumaki’s invention may have been inspired by the tsunami, it falls short of a design needed to take on or survive the ferocity of the tidal waves or the might of strong flood currents. At best, he envisions it as a small electric vehicle -- a second car for affluent families for short trips around the neighborhood.
Most customers will only use the floating capabilities in emergencies, probably only once in their lifetimes, he says.
Tsurumaki, a motorbike-racing enthusiast who only gave up on becoming a professional racer due to injury, left his post as lead engineer for an ultra-compact one-seater electric vehicle at Toyota Auto Body Co. in 2012. He founded Fomm Corp. with an initial capital of 200,000 yen ($1,804), and hand-built the first prototype while operating from a single-room dormitory.
Tsurumaki worked for three years with University of Tokyo researchers on ways to drive the car in water with all tires submerged, eventually deciding to use turbine-shaped wheels that draw in water as they revolve, and a component at the front that releases the water to achieve propulsion. It also allows the vehicle to be turned using the steering wheel.
In 2016, Fomm formed a partnership with Trinex Assets Co., a Thai real estate company whose president also runs a car-parts maker, to help build the vehicle, which is now on its fourth prototype. Production is scheduled to start in December, with the car going on sale around the same time. Thailand, a major automaking hub, started favorable policies for plug-in vehicles and hybrids this year, including tax breaks for as long as eight years.
Tsurumaki has attracted some big-name Japanese investors. Yamada Denki Co., the largest home-appliances and consumer-electronics chain, formed a capital alliance in October, without disclosing the stake. It plans to sell the car. In November, he sealed a tieup with audiovisual equipment maker Funai Electronics Co., which will help produce the car in Japan.
Tsurumaki’s electric city commuter, which is about the same size as a golf cart, features a lightweight body and batteries under each of its four seats. It accelerates by pulling a lever on the steering wheel, which is partly to save space. The batteries are replaceable, so users won’t have to wait the six hours it takes for a full charge. The car will travel nearly 100 miles on one charge, with a top speed of 50 mph.
“The car may serve as an upgrade for tricycles in Bangkok as the government pushes for cleaner vehicles, and it’s just as easy to navigate as the tuk-tuks,” said Ken Miyao, an analyst at consultancy Carnorama Inc. in Tokyo. “I can see a reasonable chance for them to succeed.”