Nissan's Carlos Ghosn Betting Big On Electric Car

  on April 04 2012 9:28 AM

Nissan Motor Co.'s CEO Carlos Ghosn didn't kill the electric car. He's the man determined to make the electric car a new cultural and transportation revolution. 

Ghosn, who is also head of the Renault-Nissan alliance, believes economic factors are weighing in the favor of his big bet that the electric car will become a standard for the masses. Nissan launched its all-electric, zero-emissions Leaf in 2010, and while the Japanese-based automaker has sold 27,000 units, sales have slowed in recent months, causing some to wonder if consumers are really ready for electric cars.

Yet Ghosn, delivering the keynote address Wednesday to launch the New York International Auto Show, told an audience that he's not changing his bullish outlook on zero-emissions cars. Ghosn earned a reputation for turning around foundering companies after he led Nissan back from the brink of death more than a decade ago. He has shown an unwavering commitment to electric cars.

All the stars are lining up, he said, to propel zero-emissions electric vehicles into high demand in many parts of the world, including Europe and the United States, where acceptance has been slower.

The obvious appeal of zero-emissions cars to potential buyers is the environmental benefit, and Ghosn said higher gas prices are also weighing in the company's favor. Don't take a one month or two month sales result (to judge the Leaf by), Ghosn told reporters after his speech. This is important technology for the industry.

Ghosn said that if anything, rising gas prices will make the landscape more competitive for Nissan. The company has made a big bet that electric cars can compete in the mass market with gasoline-electric hybrid engine vehicles. Ghosn said Nissan will try to maintain a competitive advantage by quickly moving to localize production. The Leaf is now produced in Japan; by this summer, Nissan will start building the car at plants in Tennessee and the United Kingdom.

By 2020, electric cars will command some 10 percent of the market in mature automotive markets like the U.S. and Europe, Ghosn predicts.

The Leaf will get a boost from local production, said Ghosn, explaining that initial sales figures are only part of the story.

Nissan's data center in Tokyo is connected to each of the 27,000 Leaf's on the road around the world, allowing the company to collect pertinent data for future design and planning. Ghosn suggested that information is providing the company a great advantage for the electric car growth he foresees amid intensifying economic factors.

It's a big bet for Nissan, because while the company has hybrid vehicles, its offerings are scant, as is its ownership of patents. Still, while automakers like Toyota have continued to heavily invest in hybrid technology, Nissan is attempting to leapfrog the competition by arriving as one of the first at what Ghosn hopes is the next big thing in alternative transportation.

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