Auto executive talks future of electric cars

By Danielle Stoppelmann, Daily Staff Reporter
Published January 15, 2013

Imagine if your car could sense when you are feeling tired while driving and react by playing your favorite upbeat song to energize you.

Carlos Ghosn, the chairman and CEO of the Renault-Nissan Alliance, a strategic alliance between the French and Japanese automakers, told a packed audience in Stamps Auditorium Tuesday that the future of the electric car industry could include that and many more interactive technologies that will enhance the driving experience.

Ghosn — who came to Ann Arbor after spending time at the Detroit Auto Show — said the Renault-Nissan Alliance is not a merger, but rather a partnership to benefit each independent car company. Renault owns 43 percent of Nissan’s shares and Nissan owns 15 percent of Renault’s shares to produce a combined total of eight million cars in the global market of 79 million cars, according to Ghosn.

Ghosn added that both independent companies are using each other’s resources to “produce synergies” and develop a competitive product in the market for electric cars.

“You need to keep the motivation, which is linked first from identity, but at the same time benefit from the scale of coming together,” Ghosn said.

The challenges the electric car industry is encountering are the same challenges that any innovative product faces when first entering a new market, Ghosn said. Innovators must instill a sense of familiarity into society with the introduction of a new invention before consumers can trust and utilize the product.

Ghosn added that Renault-Nissan must provide the additional resources — such as easily accessible charging stations — necessary for consuming the electric cars before the product can become widely popularized.

“This is kind of a de-bugging period,” Ghosn said. “Where the de-bugging is not only linked to the product but to the environment of the product.”

Ghosn told the audience that the world is prepared to accept the reality that electric cars will be more integrated into the global society. However, he added that governments must support the concept of electric cars as well. He pointed to the Chinese government’s removal on Sunday of all official cars from the streets of Beijing amid alarming pollution levels as a sign that ‘zero emission cars are a must.’”

Ghosn added that as the car-to-inhabitant ratio increases to close to 300 to 400 cars per 1000 inhabitants, electric cars are becoming more imperative to improve pollution levels.

“There is no way you are going to avoid this kind of technology,” Ghosn said.

In 10 years, electric cars should represent 10 percent of the market, Ghosn said, followed by a progressive decrease in pollution levels.

Ghosn said, in 2013, “without any doubt, there is going to be significant growth within the same vision that electric cars should represent an important technology of the car industry and certainly something, which is significant portion of the cars offered on the market.”

The future of the electric car industry includes a fusion between zero emissions and virtual technology, Ghosn said. In an age when information-based technologies, such as music players and tablets, are an integral part of people’s daily lives, people become increasingly interested when those features can be added to more aspects of their routines.

Ghosn also said new technology similar to that used in tablets and music players will make electric cars more interactive and appeal to the growing interest in information-based technology.

“There can be a non-direct interaction between you and the car just by giving the car a lot of your basic information,” Ghosn said. “It’s going to make your car your companion.”

At the end of the lecture, Jack Hu, associate engineering dean for academic affairs, said he and Ghosn discussed creating opportunities for students to intern for Renault-Nissan in multiple countries, such as Japan or Brazil.

“He embraced that idea, and we will be talking about these opportunities,” Hu, who introduced Ghosn, said.

Jeanne Murabito, executive director for student affairs for the College of Engineering, said she is excited to provide students with opportunities to experience international and real-world applications of what they learn at the University.

“To work in, probably France and Japan, and to have those opportunities and to really be immersed in those companies would be phenomenal,” Murabito said. “We are expanding those opportunities to our students but at this point we haven’t really developed anything with Renault and Nissan, so I’m thrilled about it.”

Engineering Prof. Elliot Soloway raised concern to Ghosn that the education students are receiving is not sufficient enough to prepare them for the visions Renault-Nissan and the electric car industry are suggesting for the future.

Ghosn said it is important to learn the fundamental concepts that apply to an industry, but “learning how to learn” to adjust to changing markets and realities is crucial to succeeding beyond completion of formal education.

“Learning certainly does not stop at the university,” Ghosn said. “Most of it will start when you are joining a company and when you are starting a career ... What we need are people who know that it’s going to be a life long learning and who have the basics, the will and the personal organization.”

Rackham student Yiyi Zhao said Ghosn’s points assured her that she is ready to pursue a career in autos.

“The classes here — Michigan especially — are very helpful to help us prepare for the future industry,” Zhao said.

Engineering sophomore Sierra George said the gender imbalance was noticeable at the lecture as well as in the male-dominated industry.

“It’s intimidating in the sense that I don’t know how it’s going to affect me,” George said. “I don’t know if it’s going to be an advantage or disadvantage. I feel like I am going to have to prove myself more and stand out a lot more.”

Follow Danielle Stoppelmann on Twitter at @dstoppelmann.