Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn Explains His Electric Car 'Ah Hah' Moment

Nissan today held a groundbreaking ceremony marking the start of construction on a manufacturing facility in Smyrna, Tenn., that will produce lithium ion batteries for the all-electric Nissan Leaf. The Leaf itself will also be produced in Smyrna, where the Nissan Altima hybrid and other conventional vehicles are currently assembled.

In a follow-up roundtable press conference with Carlos Ghosn, CEO of Nissan, journalists learned about the new production facility, which will be capable of producing 150,000 units of the Leaf beginning in late 2012. was on hand to get details about Leaf and Nissan’s production plans. Stay tuned for a full report.

In the meantime, here’s what Mr. Ghosn had to say in response to our question about Nissan’s high-level vision for electric cars. What was your ah hah moment about electric cars? Please take us through your personal thought process that convinced you to move forward.

Carlos Ghosn: What you call the “ah hah moment” is everyday. We’re being fed new information all the time. The project is progressing all the time, but fortunately, it’s all progressing in the right direction.

In every technology, we have one leader. We don’t have 15. We have one leader and N followers. Everybody looks at Nissan and says you are not leader on hybrids. Look at what Toyota is doing. They took the leadership and everybody is the follower. Period.

I have personally been skeptical about how far we go with hybrid for the very simple reason that, as an engineer, I consider putting two systems in a car not a viable solution for the long-term. It’s expensive. It’s cumbersome. It’s a good solution in some specific cases, but it’s not going to go beyond a niche.

Nissan is selling the Altima Hybrid in the United States. We’re bringing the Infiniti M hybrid, and we’re very proud of it. I don’t want to give you the impression that we are neglecting this technology, but we’re not leaders. We’re a follower, with many other people.

The electric car is different. With electric cars, we started to see that oil can go up very significantly. In 2008, it was $150. Even in this recession, oil has been around $80.

We have seen the explosion of the auto market in China. In 2009, China became the largest car market in the world. Nobody believed that it would happen so fast. During the economic crisis, India and Brazil continue to grow. We know that Russia is going to start growing this year. And the rate of the growth shows that the emerging markets are going to help global sales move beyond 100 million units per year in the foreseeable future.

We’re going to do 70 million cars in 2010, even with all the economic troubles. It’s going to be a record year for the industry—even though the U.S., Japan and Europe will be down. You have an explosion of growth in China, India and Brazil.

Now, you compound the price of oil going up, emerging markets booming, regulations on emissions becoming tighter and tighter, and dependence on oil becoming a real political problem, not only for developed countries but for emerging markets. China and India depend on oil imports.

There is no way that this can continue. At a certain point, you have to go to zero emissions and zero dependence on oil.

On top of this, we have the development of our own technology on batteries that say that today there are things that are possible that were not possible in the past.

So, the convergence between the macro environment on one side, and advances in battery technology…we’re going for it.

We announced our strategy, planned the investments, and started with one car, going to two cars, then four cars, and it’s going to continue to develop.

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  • Yegor

    Yep, Carlos Ghosn gave all the right points for going all electric!

  • Max Reid

    Very Good Nissan.

    Also the Charging stations are springing up everywhere.

    Seems this station can charge upto 50% in 10 minutes and upto 80% in 30 minutes.

    Every day, more than 40,000 vehicles are sold in China, surely this will increase the oil price. We need some vehicles that run with no gas.

  • Hal Howell

    An electric car is great, for intra-city driving. However, it is useless travel to other cities. Hybrids will remain viable for some time to come. That’s just the way it is.

  • Old Man Crowder

    So just to be clear… He’s suggesting that Nissan is, or wants to be, the leader in electric vehicle technology? After his little spiel about being a hybrid follower, he never actually comes out and says anything about all-electric leadership.

    I hope Nissan keeps to their business plan of bringing additional electric models to markets around the world.

  • ex-EV1 driver

    Hal Howell,
    “. . . it is useless travel to other cities”
    Right now, the utility of using an electric car for inter-city driving limited only by the fact that the only electric cars in production are too small to carry much, to expensive for most people to afford, they can’t handle fast charging, and there is not fast charging infrastructure hasn’t been built out yet.
    This is kind of like the comments of “Get a horse” that was yelled at the early automobile drivers when they got stuck, ran out of gas, or broke down on the road. Today, such a comment would appear to be silly now that roads are better, gas stations are plentiful, the cars are in high quality, low cost, mass production.
    The electric car is plenty viable without the need for any breakthrough new technology. All that has to be done is for a company such as Nissan to actually make practical cars using modern production techniques.
    Infrastructure is there today for inter-city travel (RV parks for charging) but needs to improve to speed up the charging time, something that can’t happen until there are cars to actually use it.
    Today, the 390 mile drive from LA to San Francisco in a Tesla electric vehicle takes about 4 hours longer than in an ICE vehicle, simply because one must charge up in the middle. Less convenient but hardly USELESS.

  • Max Reid

    Yes Hal

    EVs are good only for city, thats why its better to have a small generator that could power the car in Highway. Volt exactly has that thing. But unfortunately its very expensive.

    Lets see whether someone can come with a small generator that could power the car for another 200 miles. So 100 Battery + 200 Gas will give the car a 300 mile range.

  • Eric

    Oil prices will continue to go up as supply availability decreases and demand increases. Meanwhile battery range will continue to go up and mass production will bring prices down. Add to that fast charging stations that will pop up between major cities and, well I’ll let you do the math. I think Nissan has excellent timing with electric cars, and Ghosn’s comment on the complexities of hybrids is spot on. The simplicity of the all electric car is a beautiful thing.

  • Shines

    This has been discussed before, but for Hal’s sake I will repeat.
    Since the Leaf has regenerative breaking it should be adaptable to having a small “Generator Trailer” hooked up to the back of it for longer distance travel. The trailer could be a rental option for folks who want to take it on a long weekend or weeklong trip. It would basically be a gasoline generator with its own fuel tank. It would run while traveling beyond the normal range of the car. Once at the destination it could continue to recharge the car. Sure this somewhat defeats the purpose of an all electric vehicle, but it does offer an option for long distance travel while the new infrastructure is developed.

  • Yegor

    Shines, Thank you! That is a great idea!

  • Cool Springs Tennessee

    What do you think about Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosen replaced by Carlos Tavares? I think it will be good for the company. We’re all very excited to start driving the Nissan Leaf electric vehicles when they start rolling out.