Nissan Chief Bullish on Economy, Electric Vehicles and Donald Trump

Carlos Ghosn paints a rosy picture of a post-Obama world.

Nissan sold 1.5 million cars in America alone in 2016. It moved nearly 8.5 million cars around the world in 2015, as part of the Renault-Nissan Alliance. Google, Uber and Apple sold precisely zero.

You’ll excuse Carlos Ghosn if he’s not feeling too worried about an existential threat from Silicon Valley, including in autonomous or electric cars.

At Detroit’s North American International Auto Show, the CEO of both Nissan and Renault said that future collaboration with tech companies is virtually a given. “But you still need a car that’s attractive, reliable and comfortable,” Ghosn said.

Ghosn spoke at NAIAS's Automobili-D conference, where he made his still-bullish predictions for everything from electric cars to the incoming administration of Donald Trump. The cutesy “D” is for Detroit, though “mobility” sideshows like this are fast becoming main events at auto shows around the world. John Krafcik, chief executive of the Google-backed Waymo and former head of Hyundai’s U.S. operations, had previously shown off the self-driving, LiDAR-equipped Chrysler Pacifica that will soon begin testing on public roads in California and Arizona.

The culture of companies such as Waymo and Uber is to move quickly, constrained by as few rules as possible, but Ghosn said that automaking isn't as receptive to as, say, the telephone industry, to new players.

“You have so many regulations around the car,” Ghosn said. “Car makers are going to continue bringing the technology.”

As such, at Nissan “we remain confident in our core business of making cars.”

He contrasted that with Uber, a company that’s eager to replace human drivers with unpaid robots as a key to competitiveness.

“For them, the self-driving car is a matter of life-and-death,” he said.

Ghosn is one of the most refreshing straight-talkers in the global industry, unafraid to wade into politics, policy and other subjects that make most chief executives clam up or defer to handlers. So when the subject turned to president-elect Donald Trump, Ghosn didn’t flinch.

“When there’s a new administration in the second-biggest car market in the world, everyone is anxious,” Ghosn said. Yet Trump’s views—that “America comes first, and I want jobs in the U.S.”—are no different from that of officials and power brokers wherever Nissan does business, he said.

“We see it all over the world, that countries want to promote their own economy,” Ghosn said.

Ghosn then expressed optimism over what looks to be a stronger economy in 2017, and Trump’s approving stance toward lower corporate taxes and deregulation.

“This all goes, in my opinion, in the direction of future growth,” he said.

Until now, the house rules have been NAFTA, the trade agreement between the United States, Canada and Mexico.

If that changes, Ghosn said, that’s fine: “As long as the rules are the same for everyone, we will adapt.”

Along with some automaking peers, Ghosn is targeting 2020 for its first autonomous showroom car. Nissan unveiled its origami-styled VMotion 2.0 concept in Motown to herald not only the design direction of future Nissan designs, but its latest ProPilot technology that might allow autonomy on city streets, not just highways.

Yet Ghosn and Nissan caution that autonomous cars will still require a vigilant human for several more years, ready to take control in unforeseen circumstances, such as a sensor failure.

Back in 2011, Ghosn promised that Nissan would have 1.5 million electric cars on the road by 2020, but it’s only sold a fraction of that amount. In Detroit, Ghosn doubled down on his EV predictions while simultaneously kicking them down the road. By 2030, he insisted, 25 percent of cars sold around the world will be fully electric, not merely electrified with a hybrid boost. Ghosn invoked his familiar argument that automakers can’t do it alone, and that government must play a role.

Ghosn did not mention how the Trump administration, whose proposed cabinet includes a former ExxonMobil chief, Rick Perry for the Energy Department and climate change-denialist Scott Pruitt running the EPA, might be eager to reverse the Obama administration’s enthusiastic federal support and incentives for alternative fuels and EV adoption.

Ghosn’s crystal ball may be low-res on EVs, but the new pledge seemed tailor made for a modern mobility conference. The 100 mobility providers in attendance, including 50 start-ups, might have taken notes for their own disruptive claims: Overpromise, under-deliver, and pray that no one was paying attention.