Look back through our own news archives or those of any other site covering the future car segment, and you’ll note countless stories detailing various automakers’ plans to bring an all-electric, long-range plug-in to market.
In many cases, those vehicles are previewed as an answer to the Tesla Model S or Tesla model X: long-range, high-end luxury vehicles which are attempting to claw back some of the high-end luxury market share stolen from the mainstream automotive industry by Tesla Motors [NASDAQ:TSLA] in the past five years. But while automakers like Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz are trying to beat Tesla at its own game, Japanese automaker Nissan isn’t interested following suit.
Instead, it wants to focus on making electric cars as mainstream as possible, with a potential move into the crossover SUV segment.
That’s according to Renault-Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn who made the comments two weeks ago at a media roundtable during the 2015 Tokyo Motorshow. In a recording of the 45-minute long Q&A session uploaded to Renault-Nissan’s official YouTube channel, Ghosn makes it very clear towards the end of the session that Renault-Nissan’s goals moving forward are very different to other automakers looking at an electrified future.
Answering questions on everything on vehicular emissions targets through to the UK’s potential departure from the European Union and market growth in Brazil, China, Mexico, India and Russia, Ghosn also discussed Nissan’s vision of autonomous drive future, detailing where Nissan’s autonomous vehicle goals lay in the next decade and explaining why Japan would lead the push to self-driving cars.
Asked directly by a journalist if Renault-Nissan would be looking to build a large powerful all-electric sports sedan to compete with the Tesla Model S, Ghosn was emphatic.
“No, you’re not going to see that,” he said. “Frankly we are concentrated on the mass market, the core market. We think that going niche is very small volume, and there is already somebody doing a good job there, so why go after the segment?”
“Most of the market is in the mid[sized] sedan and the family sedan [segments],” he continued. “If we want to move somewhere we’ll be moving to crossovers, which as you know are becoming much more popular everywhere. In Europe it’s booming. In China it’s booming.”
Thanks to its Rogue, Qashqai, Juke and Murano crossovers, Nissan already has a strong grasp on the crossover SUV market, with its crossover offerings as important to Nissan’s bottom line in some markets as its electric vehicle offerings. Indeed, there’s already some connection between Nissan’s electric vehicles and its crossover offerings: the Juke is produced at the same Japanese and British factories as the Asia-pacific and European versions of the Nissan LEAF, while North American LEAFs are made alongside North American-market Nissan Rogues.
Given Nissan’s success in the crossover market and the increasing popularity of crossovers around the world, it makes perfect sense for Nissan to offer an all-electric crossover in the not-too-distant future. Add in Nissan’s latest-generation lithium-ion battery cells, which are far more energy and power dense than the cells used in early examples of the Nissan LEAF hatchback, and it’s not beyond the bounds of possibility.
We’ve even seen a crossover electric SUV from Nissan before in the form of the Terra Crossover SUV concept car. While displayed as a hydrogen fuel cell electric car rather than a battery electric car, the Terra SUV could easily be reimagined as a production electric car with minimal work.
But while Nissan is planning to bring more electric cars to the mainstream marketplace, it appears that its luxury brand Infiniti may have to wait a while before it benefits from an electric vehicle.
“I don’t think you’re going to see us soon in premium in electric cars,” Ghosn concluded. “It may happen one day…this is not our priority. Our priority is the heart of the market.”
On Nissan’s autonomous driving, Ghosn was keen to differentiate Nissan’s goals from those of other automakers and companies developing autonomous driving solutions. Unlike Google’s vision of the future — where cars were completely driverless — Ghosn said that Nissan’s vision of the future was one in which technology aided rather than replaced the driver.
“Our object in autonomous drive is not to keep you out of the car,” Ghosn said. “Our objective is to keep you in the car by empowering you. Whenever you want to drive you drive. Whenever you don’t want to drive you don’t drive.”
“That’s autonomous driving. That’s the difference between [autonomous drive] and driverless cars [like Über and Google are pursuing],” he continued. “Our goal is to keep your life onboard more pleasant, easier. You decide when you want to drive and when you don’t want to drive. If you like to drive in traffic jams you have the opportunity to do it. If you don’t, you let the car do it.”
In the future, Ghosn admitted, other functionality may arise from Nissan’s autonomous vehicle technology in ways not yet realized. But while Ghosn was hopeful for the future of autonomous driving programs, he said three things would be needed before autonomous driving became mainstream around the world: absolute reliability, better maps and infrastructure investment.
Highlighting Nissan’s work in Japan, Ghosn said that regulatory welcomeness to autonomous vehicles, along with excellent high-resolution, high-precision map data meant that it was easier for Nissan develop autonomous driving. But alongside that, he said, more functionality — or more autonomous driving use — would require the autonomous driving system to be super-reliable before it could roll out commercially. That, he intimated, is why Nissan is rolling its autonomous vehicle technology out in stages, first offering basic start-stop traffic jam assist before moving to more comprehensive systems.
Earlier in the Q&A session, Ghosn had also explained the need for enhanced instracture in the world of autonomous vehicles, such as vehicle to infrastructure-enabled stop lights, parking garages etc.
“There will be some investments in infrastructure also, because autonomous driving will necessitate some changes in infrastructure to ensure the system is reliable,” he said. Promising that Nissan’s autonomous drive functionality will be ready for market by 2020, he admitted that mass-market applicability will depend on a collaboration between private and public organizations.
In other words, Nissan will be ready, but just like electric cars, it will be up to individual countries to make autonomous driving a success or not. And that, we presume, will influence Nissan’s rollout plans.
[Hat-Tip: Brian Henderson]
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