The crowd of 600 falls silent as an employee asks Chief Executive Officer Carlos Ghosn if he’s staking too much of Nissan Motor Co’s future on electric cars and not enough on green alternatives like Toyota Motor Corp’s Prius gas-electric hybrid.
Ghosn steps to the edge of the stage at Nissan’s Yokohama headquarters and smiles, lightening the mood on a rainy October afternoon.
Hybrids, diesels and gas engines aren’t enough, Ghosn responds. In a world where oil prices may triple and political upheaval and climate change are intensifying, governments are promoting all-electric cars. Consumers will embrace them as soon as the price is right, he says.
“This is about preserving the planet,” Ghosn says, Bloomberg Markets magazine reported in its February issue. “If we start being skeptical, nothing is going to happen.”
A few minutes later, sitting sideways with his arm across the back of a chair in a conference room, Ghosn shifts from evangelist to micromanager. A Nissan ad that touts zero-emission motoring for future generations is vague, he tells a dozen executives.
“We should say specifically ‘young people, first-new-car buyer,’” he says.
Ghosn, 55, who turned Nissan into the most profitable of the world’s seven biggest automakers in 2005 and made Ghosn-san a Japanese household name, is placing the auto industry’s biggest bet yet on electric vehicles, or EVs.
Ghosn is facing an abundance of challenges. It may take until 2030 for automotive batteries to be cheap enough for widespread commercial use, the National Research Council said in December. Before then, governments may tire of propping up the EV industry with tax breaks and buyer incentives.
Ghosn’s first electric car, the Leaf, can travel only 100 miles (160 kilometers) without recharging — putting him in competition with hybrid vehicles that have no such limits. The biggest stumbling block may be out of Ghosn’s control: the price of gasoline. His success — or that of anyone who builds EVs — hinges on whether car buyers get fed up paying increasingly higher prices at the pump, says Jerome York, the former Chrysler Corp chief financial officer, who has advised billionaire investor Kirk Kerkorian. On January 6, gasoline averaged $2.68 a gallon in the US.
“If gas is $2 a gallon, this whole regulatory effort to promote EVs is going to be an ugly train wreck,” York says.
Ghosn has won supporters.
“We look very positively on the fact that they’re being innovative and have a plan for EVs that it looks like they’ll be able to achieve,” says Gilles Michel, assistant director of the New Jersey Division of Investment, which began buying its 6.6 million Nissan shares in March 2009. Since then, the stock price has more than doubled.
The division, which manages investments for the state’s $68.5 billion pension fund, also owns 500,000 Renault SA shares.
Renault started buying what’s now a 44 per cent stake in Nissan in 1999, when Ghosn was the French company’s executive vice president. Renault shares rose 59 per cent in six months to ¤39.25 on January 6. Ghosn has been CEO of both Nissan and Renault since 2005.
Michel also likes that Nissan and Renault shares were beaten down, because he expects a recovery in US auto sales. From its 18-year high in January 2007, Nissan stock tumbled 82 per cent in two years. In February 2009, Ghosn cut 20,000 jobs, or one in 12. In December, US sales rose 15 per cent from the year-ago period. On January 6, Nissan shares traded at ¥799, up 38 per cent in six months.
Ghosn needs a bold move to restore his brands’ luster. Nissan’s net income peaked in 2005 at $4.8 billion. Since that year, U.S. dealers have reported a sales drop of more than 75 percent for the Titan pickup. The truck was a centerpiece of the effort by Ghosn, a Brazilian of Lebanese descent who speaks four languages, to revive Nissan and challenge Detroit.
Ghosn expects Nissan to lose $445 million in the fiscal year ending in March 2010, adding to a $2.3 billion loss the previous year. Renault lost $3.6 billion during the first half of 2009.
As profit sank, analysts began questioning whether Nissan had an enduring identity, especially among young people, says Andy Palmer, Nissan senior vice president for product planning.
“You need to be a rebel with a cause, and we didn’t have a cause,” Palmer says.
Ghosn has found his calling. He’s going all out to populate the planet with electric vehicles, starting in December 2010 with the Leaf.
“We aim to be the global leader in zero-emission mobility,” Ghosn told employees in October.
The five-person car, which he’ll roll out first in the US and Japan, will cost as much to buy and operate as comparable gasoline models, Ghosn says. These include Honda Motor Co’s $24,000 Civic Si Drivers will have to recharge the Leaf’s £475 (215-kilogram) lithium-ion battery pack after 100 miles.
Ghosn is upending a century of automotive tradition by selling the Leaf without a battery. Instead, owners will rent the battery pack and pay for the miles used, like a cellular phone plan.
Drivers will recharge at home or at public plug-in stations, hitching to 3-foot-high (0.9-meter-high) metal posts. Or they may swap the batteries, like exchanging an empty propane tank for a full one. The price: about $120 a month in the US for battery rental and electricity.
“I’ll be very surprised if there isn’t a large community of buyers,” says Daniel Kammen, director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, who helped the state design its low-carbon-fuel standards.
Ghosn is so sure the vision will work that he’s building factories to assemble 500,000 EVs a year — 10 times more units than General Motors Co is planning to make of its Volt hybrid. The Volt, which GM says will go on sale in November, has a small gasoline engine that runs a generator to recharge the battery as needed.
For Nissan, Ghosn is planning a delivery van, sports model and two-seat urban commuter after the Leaf; for Renault, he’s looking at four EVs, including a one-seater similar to a motorcycle.
Ghosn predicts that EVs will grab 10 per cent of worldwide industry sales by 2020. He has pledged to spend $6 billion on EV technology from 2007 to 2011 — an amount equal to the combined annual research and development budgets at Nissan and Renault.
As for his companies’ recent losses, “has it been fun for anybody, you think, for the last two years?” Ghosn asks, referring to the financial crisis during a November interview at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.
Worldwide auto sales were forecast to be 55.2 million in 2009, 23 per cent below a mid-2008 forecast from research firm R L Polk & Co.
Investor Harris Kempner isn’t waiting to see whether Ghosn’s EV push derails. The CEO of Kempner Capital Management Inc in Galveston, Texas, sold his 404,296 Nissan American depositary receipts in the quarter ended on September 30.
“There’s plenty of room for improvement in gas engines that don’t require new infrastructure,” Kempner says.
For Rod Lache, a Deutsche Bank AG analyst in New York, the cost of electric vehicles’ battery packs is a major constraint. A pack as big as the Leaf’s costs $15,600, Lache says. That compares with about $30 for a gas tank in conventional cars that travel four times farther.
Eric Noble, president of research firm The CarLab in Orange, California, says the metals used in batteries are getting more expensive. In 2009, lithium carbonate cost $6,500 a metric ton, almost triple 2006 prices, according to the US Geological Survey.
“The result will be massive losses,” Noble says of Ghosn’s EV effort.
Bill Reinert, Toyota’s US manager for advanced technology who helped design the Prius, says range is a major detraction for electric vehicles.
“One hundred miles covers most daily trips but not all,” he says. “How many people can afford a specialised car that can’t be used on vacation?”
Toyota’s planned all-electric car, set to make its debut in 2012, is a four-seater designed for commuting. It will go at least 50 miles without recharging.
Ghosn says the Leaf’s range will satisfy most drivers. He’s signed agreements with 41 governments and utilities — from Portugal to Portland, Oregon, to the prefecture of Kanagawa near Tokyo — to build recharging stations as part of their plans to curb greenhouse gases and cut dependence on petroleum.
Even so, EVs may not provide the same environmental benefits in all countries. US reliance on coal, a polluting fossil fuel, for half of its electricity needs taints EVs’ green credentials, says Jan Kreider, an engineering professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder.
An EV with a 40-mile range will emit 110,000 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalents during its lifetime because it relies partly on coal as the original energy source, Kreider says. Toyota’s Prius will emit £97,000, and Nissan’s gas-powered Sentra compact will put out £140,000.
Ghosn says that once EVs arrive in showrooms, companies will invest in nuclear, wind and solar energy to create cleaner electricity.
For now, his success turns on batteries. Ghosn plans to build them through Automotive Energy Supply Corp, which Nissan owns jointly with NEC Corp, Japan’s biggest personal computer maker.
NEC has a 1 per cent market share for lithium-ion batteries, says Menahem Anderman, president of technology consulting firm Advanced Automotive Batteries in Oregon House, California. NEC trails Samsung Electronics Co, Sanyo Electric Co and Sony Corp, each with 10 per cent market share or more, he says.
Batteries are harder to build for cars than computers, Anderman says. That’s because they require high voltage and a long life and are more sensitive to variations in manufacturing.
“AESC has produced less than 1,000 EV batteries, and its testing of durability for a 10-year automotive life cycle is at an early stage,” he says. “Talking about producing 500,000 batteries a year is quite premature.”
Lache predicts that high-volume manufacturing will cut battery costs — now $650 per kilowatt-hour — in half by 2020. Ghosn says costs will fall faster. He’s working on batteries with twice the range of Leaf’s and has teamed up with Sumitomo Corp to sell used batteries that can no longer withstand automotive requirements but can store power for utilities.
GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz says their limited range puts all-electric vehicles years from widespread adoption.
“He’s rolling the dice,” Lutz, 77, says of Ghosn’s battery-only tack. “I don’t see it happening.”
Until the early 1900s, when Texas gushed with cheap oil, electric cars were about as popular as gas models. A century later, as governments and consumers struggle to cut fossil fuel use, EVs may be coming back.
Portuguese Prime Minister Jose Socrates has pledged to use them for 20 per cent of government transportation needs, build 1,350 public recharging stations by 2011 and give buyers tax credits and subsidies of more than ¤8,000 ($11,518).
“I’ve seen three oil shocks,” says Socrates, 52, whose country of 10.6 million has no commercial coal or oil production. “It’s not possible to live through these situations and do nothing.”
In recent decades, Nissan has made its name with the Z and Skyline GT-R sports cars. Yet the company has had a team investigating lithium-ion technology for almost two decades as it has braced for rising oil prices.
Even as Nissan shuttered factories in 1999, it continued battery work. In 2006, Ghosn overruled Nissan’s researchers and approved high-volume EV manufacturing.
“The engineers will always tell you, ‘Wait a little more,’ and if you keep playing this game, you never launch any product,” he says.
By the time Ghosn attended the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in January 2007, he was a full-blown EV booster.
He met Shimon Peres, the Israeli vice prime minister who’d become an EV advocate because of his country’s limited oil. Peres brought Shai Agassi, the Israeli-born founder of Better Place, a Palo Alto, California, company that builds and operates networks of recharging stations, to a meeting at Peres’s hotel.
As the two pitched EVs, Ghosn said he didn’t need to hear it.
“I’ve got your car,” Ghosn said, Agassi recalls. “Let’s do it.” Peres, who is now Israel’s president, declined to comment for this story.
Ghosn agreed to build 100,000 electric vehicles to be recharged by Better Place in Israel and Denmark. Peres slashed import taxes on EVs to 10 per cent compared with 83 per cent for gas models. Agassi is building 500,000 recharging stations where drivers use credit cards or mobile phones to pay.
In August, Ghosn drove a sky-blue Leaf onto the stage at Nissan headquarters with former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi riding shotgun.
“It was so unexpectedly smooth and quiet,” Koizumi said. “I am sure this car is going to be popular.”
Toyota’s Reinert isn’t convinced. He says EVs could experience a five-year bubble, like solar panels during President Jimmy Carter’s term in the late 1970s. If budget cuts force governments to end subsidies, only a handful of EVs could be left standing in the market, he says.
Ghosn says competitors are trailing Nissan in EVs, so naturally they’re going to play down the technology’s prospects.
“They cannot say, ‘we’re forecasting a 10 per cent market share for EVs and, by the way, we have nothing,’” he says.
Ghosn is spreading his electric gospel. “He’s a superb executive and works beyond belief,” York says.
Ghosn says he’s waiting for the right time to talk with US carmakers about alliances that would support investments in zero-emission vehicles, aiming to get everybody behind his quest to use EVs to tackle climate change.
Businessmen must advocate policies that alter societies, Ghosn says, noting that oil prices could suddenly shoot up to $250 a barrel from $82.36 on January 6 and nobody would be prepared.
“It’s about having a road map to avoid this continuous discussion about the disaster looming on us in the next five or 10 years,” he says.
It’s also about whether history remembers Carlos Ghosn as a Henry Ford, whose vision shaped the modern auto industry — or as an automotive rebel who found a cause the world wasn’t ready to embrace.