If you really want to know what’s going on in a car company, go to the men at the top. There’s no chance of crossed wires, indecision or sitting on the fence with answers – these are the guys that really know.
So it was fascinating to spend half an hour of yesterday’s Tokyo motor show in the company of Renault-Nissan chief Carlos Ghosn.
He is clearly a man without loyalties. In a country as polite and unconfrontational as Japan, it was bordering on shocking to hear him so openly say that he would be willing to take even more production away from the country because it is “totally uncompetitive” to build cars for export there due to the continued strength of the yen.
Ghosn, who stood up throughout the press conference and made steely eye contact with all his questioners, said the knock-on effects of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami from earlier this year “were not a huge problem” for Nissan. “The yen is the problem, but it can no longer be a problem as we will move production out of Japan.” Strong stuff.
Japan may have its economic problems, but arguably those facing Europe are even greater. Ghosn was surprisingly optimistic in his prediction for the state of the new car market for Europe in 2012, saying it would “be a shock” if sales fell by as much as 10 per cent.
“They [the European countries] have spent 30 years building Europe and I can’t imagine them being passive in what has happened.” Ghosn went on to say “no-one is having the wild dream” of growth for the market in 2012, “it’s just a case of how bad the drop will be.”
Ghosn has really made a name for himself in recent years in his whole-hearted support for electric vehicles. He’s essentially staked the future of the company on mass-marketed electric cars and Ghosn, returning to the scene of the Leaf’s launch two years ago, reaffirmed his belief that 10 per cent of all Nissans sold by 2020 would be electric.
One interesting footnote to the strategy was the role Ghosn believes electric vehicles will play in developing markets. Many analysts have suggested that such markets may skip conventionally powered cars altogether and head to straight into electrically driven models, but Ghosn believes such a scenario is only likely in China, if anywhere, because the cost and availability of the technology – and a desire to establish it in developed markets first – stand in the way.
“We want these countries to really desire the technology. We want people from them to go to Tokyo, Paris, London, see electric vehicles and hear how quiet they are and how clean the air is and ask: ‘why can’t we have these in our countries?’”
Ghosn has delivered on all his promises about electric cars so far, whether the market will adopt them and the ambitious sales targets are reached remains the $64,000 question. But given his ruthlessness in how he deals with the rest of Nissan’s business, Ghosn is a man who would not have got involved with EVs if he believed the technology would fail.