Japanese demographers see a worrisome trend in the decline of the country's fertility rates and the boom in pet ownership. Honda Motor Co. sees a growth market.
At the upcoming Tokyo Motor Show, Honda plans to show a new concept car designed to meet the needs of dog owners. The stylish minivan, called the WOW, as in Bow Wow, has a slew of features for dogs and their drivers. The glove compartment converts into a riding carriage for a dog the size of a small poodle or dachshund. For bigger dogs, the second of the three seat rows changes into a holding pen. It is equipped with a sunroof for dogs that like the wind. The back door has a compartment to keep accessories such as leashes, brushes and the inevitable pooper scooper.
The floors come paneled instead of carpeted, a crucial difference for pet owners, says Takeshi Yamaguchi, a Honda senior designer. "It's easier to clean up the mess," he said.
The minivan, for now, is a trial model developed to test consumer reaction to new ideas. Honda officials haven't disclosed specific plans to market a production version. But people familiar with Honda's thinking on the matter say the minivan, which has paw footprints embedded in its tire treads, is part of the company's plan to roll out more cars with features designed for pet owners in Japan. The company is considering similar vehicles for other important Honda markets, including the United States.
The concept is part of a broader effort at Honda to tap into the growing ranks of dog owners, a market it has been testing with a series of options and add-ons. Paneled wood floors, for example, are already available on Honda's minivans in Japan, and the company has developed washable seats and sidings.
Also at the Tokyo Motor Show, to be held Oct. 22 to Nov. 6, Honda is to announce a new line of "Travel Dog" accessories, made for specific car models, that will go on sale in Japan this year. Pet carriers for small dogs start at about $220, but a big pet-cargo cover, which turns the back of a van or wagon into a large dog bed, can run as much as $440. The carriers are locked into place by a system of straps that functions much like a seat belt. A portable dog carrier can be fastened as easily as a child's safety seat, a brochure notes, while pet mats and seat covers come in "luxurious synthetic leather with tire-tread design."
Honda has been marketing the "Honda Dog" notion on its Japanese Web site, which offers tips on teaching dogs to ride in cars. Dealerships in Japan are reluctant to allow customers to bring dogs on test drives, so Honda has been holding outdoor dog festivals, complete with dog talent shows, where owners are encouraged to bring their dogs on test drives.
The company markets specific models to owners, depending on the type of dog they have. Collie owners, for example, might consider the Elysion minivan, which is big enough to make it easier to clean up after dogs that shed a lot of hair. A Dalmatian, on the other hand, might fit better in the back of an Accord wagon.
Honda is seeking to adapt to Japan's demographic realities. Japan's government says the fertility rate of Japanese women is at an all-time low of 1.28, well less than the 2.1 needed to maintain a population of 127 million. That population is set to fall to just slightly more than 100 million by 2050.
The number of dog and cat owners has been growing steadily, by 3 percent a year, for the past decade, and households with a dog or a cat total 21 million, according to the Pet Food Manufacturers Association of Japan. "The two big growth sectors are empty nesters and single women," said the association's chairman, Toshio Takahara. "They like little dogs, Chihuahuas, dachshunds, that sort of thing. It has become a major fad, and it shows no sign of letting up."
Honda officials note that registered dog and cat owners in Japan now outnumber the 17.7 million children younger than 15.
Honda is to unveil a stylish minivan called the WOW, as in Bow Wow, with amenities for pets and owners.