Nissan chief welcomes competition in electric vehicles

Kevin A. Wilson Special to The News

As maker of the best-selling affordable electric car over the past five years, the Nissan Leaf, Renault-Nissan Alliance president CEO Carlos Ghosn said he welcomes the arrival of competitors like the new Chevy Bolt.

Speaking at the Automotive News World Congress Wednesday night in the Detroit Marriott, Ghosn said, in essence, the more the merrier because expansion of the electric car market will drive governments, consumers and the power industry to quicker expansion of the necessary re-charging infrastructure. “We are all part of the same thing,” he said.

In a question-and-answer format discussion with Automotive News Group Publisher KC Crain, Ghosn also discussed his company’s plans for autonomous vehicles and the issue of grooming a successor — perhaps more than one — to take on the CEO job he’s had at the merged companies since 1999.

In the past year, he noted, Nissan gained market share its primary Japanese-based competitors in the U.S. and, though it remains third behind Toyota and Honda here, it ranks first in China and Japan.

Does government need to play a bigger role in expanding the infrastructure with recharging stations for electrics and hydrogen stations for fuel cell cars, Crain asked. “I can’t complain,” said Ghosn, “because Chinese, Japanese, European governments are doing that,” said Ghosn, pointedly leaving out the U.S.. “the government has to develop the supporting infrastructure—we need the public sector because that’s their job in a way.”

The Leaf, he said, was deliberately designed to be a mass-market, affordable product. That ensures the sales volumes needed to contribute to the company’s fuel economy and carbon emissions targets and grow the market. “It would be too easy for our engineers to do an expensive electric car,” he said. “If there’s no cost constraint, no…that’s not what we need.”

Crain asked if Ghosn would accept the nickname Mr. Electric Car. “I’m used to many nicknames, but no, I don’t think so. That belongs to someone else you know very well,” he replied. Elon Musk’s Tesla Motors has in recent months seen sales of its much more expensive and luxurious electric sedans outpace even those of Leaf.

Ghosn recently announced that Renault-Nissan would produce autonomous cars within the next five years. “I’m not talking about driverless cars,” he clarified. “We are telling the driver, ‘If you want to drive, you can. If not, you can also.’ ”

After his long tenure atop Nissan-Renault, Ghosn is increasingly asked about succession plans. He has made known that he advised the boards of each company (still separate) that he thinks it might be best to have two separate CEOs after he retires. “But it is up to the board. After I’m gone, it’s not my problem. Every two years in Japan, every four years in France, the boards have to decide. And when I step down, they will make the decisions.”

When might that be? “You want to be sure to pass the baton at the point where you’re proud of what’s been accomplished,’’ Ghosn said, noting that the company’s 3 percent market share in North America is now at 8.5 percent. He’s set a 10 percent share target and thinks it could be achieved by 2017. But, he also noted, he’d want to make sure that the entity would not come apart just because the executive corps turned over. “You want to have built something sustainable and durable.”