In the days and weeks after the horrific one-two punch of natural disasters, wispy battery-electric cars — engineered for lightness and equipped with tires designed for minimal rolling resistance — proved their mettle.
These welterweight sedans, including models from Mitsubishi and Nissan, turned out to be the vehicles that got through — not because of any special ability to claw their way over mountains of debris, but because they were able to "refuel" at common electrical outlets.
With oil refineries out of commission and clogged roadways slowing deliveries, finding gasoline had become a challenge. Shortages were so acute that Japan's Self-Defense Forces had to truck in gasoline; donations of diesel fuel were accepted from China.
Yet in Sendai, about 250 miles northeast of Tokyo, and other cities ravaged by the earthquake, electricity returned within days. Taking stock of the situation, the president of Mitsubishi Motors, Osamu Masuko, offered dozens of his company's egg-shaped i-MiEV (pronounced "eye-meeve") electric cars to affected cities.
Despite their image as light-duty runabouts best suited for trips to a nearby shopping mall, the electric vehicles were immediately put to use. They were pressed into service ferrying supplies to refugee centers, schools and hospitals, and taking doctors, city workers and volunteers on their rounds.
While the i-MiEVs could not help out with tasks like hauling building materials or towing stranded vehicles, the assistance from Mitsubishi was much appreciated. In all, 89 i-MiEVs went to the recovery effort, including 34 to Miyagi Prefecture, 33 to Fukushima Prefecture and 18 to Iwate Prefecture.
"There was almost no gas at the time, so I was extremely thankful when I heard about the offer," said Tetsuo Ishii, a division chief in the environmental department in Sendai, which also got four Nissan Leaf electric cars. "If we hadn't received the cars, it would have been very difficult to do what we needed to."
Mr. Ishii and other officials in Sendai assigned the cars strategically. Two were used to bring food and supplies to the 23 remaining refugee centers in the city, while two others served doctors. Education officials have been using another two vehicles to inspect schools for structural damage. Others helped deliver supplies to kindergartens around the city or were loaned to volunteer groups.
Once the most pressing needs are met, the city may use the cars to help in the cleanup of damaged homes, as fuel shortages still limit the availability of trucks. For now, though, the cars are driven an average of 30 to 45 miles each day, about half the distance that they can be driven on a full charge.
"One charge is perfect for us, because it allows us to drive around during the day with no trouble," Mr. Ishii said. "We're not that big of a city."
Most of the cars, he said, returned each night to city hall, where they were recharged at 200-volt outlets. Fast-charging stations, which replenish batteries to 80 percent of capacity within 30 minutes, are used where available. Standard 100-volt outlets can also be used, but the recharge then takes more than 12 hours.