If Nissan EVs Falter, What Company Will Champion Electric Cars?

By · November 16, 2012

Carlos Ghosn and the Nissan LEAF

Carlos Ghosn, chief executive at Nissan-Renault, has been the auto industry's boldest advocate for pure electric cars.

Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn has finally admitted what EV sales numbers have been clearly indicating since January, and what even the most casual observer of the electric car market could clearly see: Nissan will not meet its 2012 sales target for the all-electric LEAF.

So far this year, Nissan has sold 6,791 LEAFs, down 15.6 percent from this time a year ago. The company had predicted that sales would double this year.

With each passing week over the past few months, as Ghosn continued to deny the obvious, the company’s credibility as the leader in EVs was being eroded. In fact, just a few days ago, he refused to step back from the larger goal of Nissan-Renault cumulatively selling 1.5 million EVs by 2015. He instead suggested to Automotive News that electric car sales from Renault, including the Zoe model to be introduced next year, could help reach sales targets.

“On top of this, we're opening a lot of doors for the LEAF,” Ghosn said. “We're becoming more competitive with the LEAF and putting our act together.”

The key question now for the EV movement in the United States is if Nissan will indeed get its act together—and what other major carmaker (if any) will take over the electric car leadership role that could be left vacant by Nissan as it turns to other markets. The 2013 LEAF will be improved; the first Infiniti EV will go on sale next year; and battery production (even without a grand ribbon-cutting ceremony) will begin by the end of this year. But when asked if Nissan has overinvested in EVs, Ghosn replied, “We're following carefully what's going on in China. We're following very carefully the new incentives that are in France to encourage electric cars.”

He added, “No matter what, the United States is going to have to embrace electric cars in a way that is more sustainable,” but did not elaborate further. There's little evidence to suggest that American car buyers will make a sudden turn toward EVs. Rather, it appears that conventional hybrids and plug-in hybrids will make up the lion's share of the market for battery-powered cars.

This week, General Motors—perhaps sensing an opportunity—said that its electrification strategy “will center on the plug.” This most likely means extended-range electric vehicles, such as the Chevy Volt, rather than pure electric cars. Also this week, Ford held a media event to introduced the Ford C-Max Energi plug-in hybrid. Ford expects about 70 percent of its electrified vehicles to be conventional hybrids; 20 to 25 percent to be plug-in hybrids; and only 5 to 10 percent to be all-electric battery electric cars. Toyota and Honda, in all likelihood, will continue to emphasize hybrids and plug-in hybrids, rather than pure electric cars. Tesla is winning awards for the Model S, but ramping up production will take years. Volkswagen? Daimler? BMW?

For the past few years, Nissan has been the industry's number one champion for electric vehicles, giving hope that EVs will make dramatic gains in the market. Now, with Nissan finally acknowledging coming up short on its bold sales projections, it’s uncertain if it will continue to play that role—and if not, how the EV movement will fare without a bold voice calling for mass adoption of electric cars.

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