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Skepticism Persists as Nissan’s Ghosn Leads Charge Into EV Age

When Nissan asked people for their first choice between a hybrid, electric or internal-combustion car, 9% of the Japanese and 8% of the Americans queried opted for electric.

Carlos Ghosn is a man on a mission.

In recent months, the charismatic president and CEO of Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. and Renault SA has been sales pitching for electric vehicles so hard in so many places, industry analysts have begun to wonder whether he’s selling an automotive elixir or snake oil.

His speeches are persuasive, touching on everything that suggests EVs and zero emissions are “the wave of the future” for global auto makers, led by Nissan.

“We are probably the only auto maker (together with Renault) already spending more than €4 billion ($6 billion) on electric cars and zero emissions,” Ghosn says in a presentation to the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan in mid-October. “This is not a bet but the result of a very thorough analysis of market forces and government policies. We feel electric cars are ready now.”

The era of “cheap oil” is ending, Ghosn says, pointing out electricity can be generated in many ways utilizing coal, natural gas, wood, wind, nuclear or solar energy. Every government around the world today, right or left, is becoming more concerned about the environment and how to preserve Planet Earth, he stresses.

The Nissan approach to changing times and circumstances varies from that of competitors in one critical area.

“The big difference is our intention to be a big player in the battery industry,” Ghosn says. “To have a sustainable strategy in electric-car or zero-emission markets, any car maker needs to have clear control of the battery. This is a core technology, and we are making it a core business.”

He cites Nissan projections EVs will represent 10% of the global auto market in 2020, despite other studies suggesting penetration as low as 1%.

The confidence builder? When the company asked people for their first choice between a hybrid, electric or internal-combustion car, 9% of the Japanese and 8% of the Americans queried opted for electric.

Nissan will offer its Leaf EV in the U.S. and Japan in 2010. A year later, Renault will roll out the first of its EV lineup in Israel, Denmark and France. And, in 2012, Renault and Nissan will launch “a full-fledged offensive” with many cars in as many markets as possible.

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Nissan Leaf.

The electric car will be a long-term project, involving long-term investment and long-term positioning.

“We need incentives to jump-start the technology,” the Renault/Nissan CEO admits. “We need three to four years of support. Incentives will pave the way, and then it will be a normal competition.”

And there’s the rub.

Other auto makers share Ghosn’s enthusiasm for EVs to one degree or another.

Mitsubishi Motors Corp. launched the iMiEV earlier this year and hopes to sell 15,000 units in 2015, by which time a cargo version of the car, exhibited at October’s Tokyo Motor Show as a concept, should be on the market as well.

PSA Peugeot Citroen, working jointly with Mitsubishi, will offer its i-MiEV-based iOn in late 2010, while Hyundai Motor Co. Ltd. is developing an EV for fleet use, also aiming for a late-2010 launch.

Other brands planning near-term launches: Ford, BMW, Fiat, Mercedes and Volvo.

Even tiny Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd., maker of Subaru cars, is in the hunt with the June launch of its Stella EV.

Still, other auto makers are hedging their bets – or being realistic.

General Motors Co.’s Volt, due in 2010, is a plug-in hybrid, which executives say could be converted into a pure EV if and when necessary.

Toyota Motor Corp. Executive Vice President Takeshi Uchiyamada predicts hybrids will account for 30% of Toyota sales by 2020 and won’t even venture a guess about the share of plug-in hybrids and EVs by then.

But assuming the market recovers and Toyota re-grows its business to 10 million or even 12 million units, 30% of those global sales would be somewhere between 3 million and 3.6 million. And none would be EV sales, nor probably involve lithium-ion batteries like those in the Leaf.

Several years ago, Honda Motor Co. Ltd. predicted 20% of its sales in 2020 would be hybrids, and the company’s focus is still on mild-hybrid technology, leaving little room for EVs. Honda currently is working with GS Yuasa Corp., the Li-ion battery supplier for Mitsubishi's i-MiEV and PSA’s iOn, on development of a battery for a future hybrid.

Toyota’s battery subsidiary, Panasonic EV Energy Co. Ltd., currently is producing 4-cell Li-ion batteries for the intelligent stop/start system on the Vitz and Yaris. But the supplier’s main business is nickel-metal-hydride battery packs, which it supplies to all Toyota hybrids and Honda’s Civic Hybrid.

Yet skeptics and naysayers leave Ghosn undeterred.

“The only question is, ‘Are we ready now or should we wait for five more years until we have better technology and lower cost?’” he said during a panel discussion in New York at the Clinton Global Initiative in September. “We think the time is now.”

Intuitively, that makes sense – if the numbers work. It is the strategy Toyota took launching the Prius in December 1997, namely cash-in on the publicity, develop real-world operational experience and keep filing patents, while counting on volume growth to bring down costs eventually.

The Leaf's chief designer, Masato Inoue, sees it in precisely those terms. “We want to be first on the market, and the Prius (business) model is proven,” he says.

In mid-November, in California to kick-off a U.S. marketing tour, Ghosn tells reporters the Leaf will be the first affordable, mass-market electric car priced competitively with similar-size cars and says he expects to make money on the vehicle.

The 64,000-yen question is when? Surely not at launch time when battery costs, alone, not counting motors and inverters, will well exceed the auto maker’s mass-production target of ¥500,000 ($5,600) per set.

Though positive about Nissan’s technology, which it jointly developed with NEC Corp., analysts are skeptical about the auto maker’s cost goals.

Many industry experts believe Ghosn’s vision of near-future EV demand is a daydream, distorted by over-optimism and colored by an unrealistic view of battery costs, prompting unanswered questions as to just how high incentives and subsidies will need to go to create sufficient EV demand and who will be ready and able to offer this kind of support.

“It's time for a reality check,” says CLSA Asia-Pacific Markets analyst Kanehide Yahata, who estimates combined EV and plug-in hybrid sales will account for no more than 1.5% of global demand in 2015. Because bringing down battery costs is the major deterrent, Yahata declines to venture a 2020 forecast.

In the next five years, he believes it may be possible to lower those costs to $500 per kilowatt-hour. But that is still double the level needed to make EVs competitive with conventional powertrains and shrink their price penalty to below $5,000 per car, presumably including motors, inverters and battery-cooling systems.

A University of Michigan study indicates U.S. consumers are willing to pay only $2,500 extra for a plug-in hybrid. The new Prius cost penalty, not counting research and development, is estimated at about $2,200.

In Japan, minivehicles selling for about ¥1 million ($11,000) account for one-third of total vehicle sales. Cars under 2L in engine displacement, priced below ¥2 million ($23,000), take another third of sales. Buyers in these segments can’t afford EVs, even with huge subsidies.

Yet combined subsidies and incentives for the Leaf in Japan – national, prefectural and municipal – are expected to range from ¥1.3 million ($15,000) to more than ¥2 million, similar to those passed on to owners of Mitsubishi’s i-MiEV, when the car hits dealer showrooms toward the end of next year.

This means the net price to the consumer will be on the order of ¥2.5 million ($28,000), give or take several hundred thousand yen (several thousand dollars), assuming the central government renews its subsidy program due to end next March.

Nissan does not confirm a Leaf sales price.

“Ghosn’s analysis is compelling on most major issues except one – who will pay for the massive subsidies needed to underpin EV sales?” says a senior bureaucrat in Tokyo. “On that vital point, he fails.”

Japan’s national debt is off the charts at about ¥924 trillion ($10.4 trillion) projected for the end of 2009, while its public debt as a percentage of its gross domestic product is more than double all Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries except Italy.

Much the same situation can be seen in the U.S. and European Union, where mounting debts and massive budget shortfalls at all government levels, from national to local, easily could dampen EV sales prospects despite their positive environmental impact.

On top of this, all of the leading EV proponents, notably Nissan, Renault, Mitsubishi and PSA, carry huge debt loads. And three of them – Nissan, Renault and PSA – reported substantial operating losses over the past 12-13 months, adding to their debt and limiting their abilities to promote zero-emission technologies without government support.

Some experts say recharging time and driving range are the biggest drawbacks to EVs, but ultimately these are a function of battery capacity and cost, the first of which is too little, the second too much.

According to Ghosn, the Leaf's 100-mile (160-km) range covers 90% of the daily driving needs in Japan and most other major markets. The problem is that other 10%.

“Buyers would basically be paying the price of a Lexus for a second car,” one Nissan official admits.

While the basic story line is right, Ghosn has omitted a few details that could make the road ahead a little bumpier – namely, that the Leaf’s 100-mile range is achieved without engaging the car’s air-conditioner and heater, which knocks off 30%. Also, the life of the battery for automotive use is estimated at only four to five years.

To Nissan’s credit, it has taken steps to address the battery-life problem by entering into a joint venture with Japanese trading house Sumitomo Corp. Under the plan announced in October, batteries will be recycled for home and industrial use as backup storage devices for solar panels.

The next decade more likely will be one featuring the growth of hybrids, not EVs, and substantially improved conventional powerplants. For example, Mazda Motor Corp.’s new Sky engine series, due out in 2011, will offer 15% better fuel economy. And there are jokers with sharp elbows in the deck.

China reportedly is prepared to outspend the U.S. – and most likely Japan – in EV development and leave foreign competitors far behind.

Chinese Li-ion battery maker BYD Co. Ltd., the world’s leading supplier to mobile phone manufacturers and a small producer of cars, introduced a plug-in hybrid last December, the F3DM, and reportedly is planning an EV launch in the near future.

Analysts have been bullish on the company ever since Warren Buffet took an equity stake last year. However, CLSA’s Yahata warns that BYD still hasn't introduced a battery pack for personal computers, slightly up the development curve from mobile phone batteries, “thus an EV battery might take some time,” he says.

Japan’s new central government, now pushing for a 25% reduction in carbon-dioxide emissions by 2020, also could spur EV growth. The problem again is who is going to pay?

But if Japan can put in place the necessary infrastructure and car makers and suppliers can slash battery costs, the policy could propel the nation’s auto industry into the dominant position for years to come, much like its currently leadership in hybrids.

Not to be ignored is competition from Toyota, with cumulative global hybrid sales of 2.1 million units through September. The third-generation Prius, launched in May, has been Japan’s top-selling car for five consecutive months and is on target to easily surpass 200,000 units globally in the current fiscal year.

It is interesting to note as well that when the Prius bowed in 1997, Toyota had nearly ¥3 trillion ($34 billion) in the bank to support this hybrid initiative during the first few years when it lost money on every sale, whereas Nissan still has a ¥293 billion ($3.3 billion) net debt. Mitsubishi and Subaru also lack deep financial pockets.

Yet, Nissan could hold a wild card. If the company really has developed the industry’s most affordable Li-ion battery, as some analysts have reported, it possibly could propel the global auto industry into the zero-emissions age as Ghosn foresees.

Nissan has been developing Li-ion batteries for 20 years, initially working with Sony Corp. and now with NEC. By late 2012, if the auto maker's business plan is sound, it will have annual production capacity for 385,000 battery sets in Japan, the U.K., the U.S. and elsewhere.

Adding in capacity planned by partner Renault, total Alliance capacity would approach 500,000 units, yielding real economies of scale.

Energy Minister Jean-Louis Borloo announced in October that France would invest E2.5 billion ($3.6 billion) over the next 10 years in research, subsidies, infrastructure development, battery production, pilot projects and bonuses for car makers building green cars.

Add to that, Nissan has entered into more than 30 partnerships with national, state and city governments and utilities to develop EV technology in 13 countries including Japan.

How much is hype and how much offers real business potential, only time will tell.

But the strategic tie-ups clearly suggest that either the automotive elixir is addictive or the snake oil has bite.

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