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Renault-Nissan CEO Keeps Tech Partnership Options Open (Q&A)

"We are trying not to make decisions too fast," CEO Carlos Ghosn said in an interview.

Anthony L. Lindsey / Anthony Lindsey Photography

No one has ever accused the car industry of moving too quickly, even if the cars it produces can go from zero to 60 in two seconds flat. So it’s no surprise that carmaker Renault-Nissan is “trying not to make decisions too fast” regarding partnerships with tech companies and fellow automakers, CEO Carlos Ghosn said in an interview with Re/code.

On maps, Ghosn said he is studying whether to join with the German automakers that bought Nokia’s Here mapping unit. Likewise, on in-car electronics, the company is deciding just how much to partner with Apple and Google.

 Renault-Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn
Renault-Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn
Ina Fried for Re/code

The risk, of course, is that the car industry’s glacial pace could open an opportunity for Apple and Google to take over the driver’s seat as software plays an increasing role in today’s vehicles.

Ghosn spoke during a visit to Silicon Valley in which Renault-Nissan announced plans to incrementally add autonomous features to its cars, starting with 10 models over the next four years that will have steadily increasing capabilities. Here’s an edited transcript of our talk:

Re/code: How important is it for Renault-Nissan to own the entertainment and navigation systems? Obviously Apple and Google have their own designs. How do you see the in-car electronics battle playing out?

Carlos Ghosn: We are still testing different approaches. In many fields, we did not completely make our minds up yet.

It is not a question only of where we go but also with whom we we are going to go. It’s fair to say that today we are trying not to make decisions too fast. We are just testing different solutions, different providers, before we move in. We are very prudent because we want to keep control of our car.

We don’t want to end up being the cheap hardware producer for somebody else who is going to sell software. That is obviously not part of what we are aiming at.

We would like maybe not to own everything, but at least to be in control.

What do you think of an approach like Ford saying, “We don’t want Google or Apple in control,” and offering a solution to the car industry for a common standard for mobile app makers that want to tap into in-car entertainment systems.

Why not? Carmakers are capable by themselves, jointly. Even though we are fierce competitors, we find common ground. For example, in Japan, all the carmakers who are competitors joined forces to support the development of charging stations. We can find common ground to say, “It’s better that we do things between ourselves and keep control in our industry [while], at the same time, competing inside this domain.” I think it is a very good idea.

Is it similar on maps? Are you glad the German carmakers bought Nokia’s Here maps business?

They are our partner. They are saying, “Why don’t you join us?”

Are you going to join them?

We didn’t say that. We said we are going to look seriously. At the same time, before we make a move like this, we want to check … the other options. Are we sure it is the best decision for Nissan?

What about putting cellular connections in cars? How important is that today?

I think this is important. The car should be an environment that is as versatile as you being in your own house or your own office.

We want the car to be an object of transportation, but also to be a place that is personal. That’s why I don’t buy it that we are all moving toward shared cars. I don’t think it is going to be this cold and unpersonalized space that everybody shares. When you see how the mobile phone is moving, the car is going to become this personal space that you don’t want to share with a lot of people.

So you see car sharing as …?

Growing, but how much this grows, I’m a little bit skeptical, because I see so many other trends coming.

Today, 85 million cars are sold every year. Do you know how many are shared? It’s not even a factor. Because the number of shared cars today is so small, it can only grow. Is it going to represent a massive part of our car sales? I don’t think so.

One way to judge if it is going to be large: At some point, carmakers would build cars just for shared use. Are you doing that?

We’re not, and nobody is so far.

On autonomous cars, I got to ride in your car. It’s definitely different from what Google is building. The driver had to take control five or six times. Is that okay?

At the end of the day, what is your end game? Most of the carmakers are aiming at empowering the driver. You decide when you want to drive. You decide when you don’t want to drive. This is going to give you already a lot of advantages: Safety, productivity, stress-free …

Our goal is not a car without a driver. It may be a very important objective for Uber, because it is their model. For us, it is not the main objective. It may be a by-product. Why am I going to change the way I develop my cars for something that is not the main objective?

That’s why step-by-step, for me, is important. A driverless car may become the by-product of this. So far I didn’t hear any carmaker make a driverless car their objective. [It’s about] making the driver king.

Even though autonomous is going to bring a ton of safety benefits, there’s going to be a possibility, in the semi-autonomous model, that the handoff is going to bring risk. Maybe more risk. How do you handle the handoff issues?

Today, 93 percent of the accidents are due to human intervention. We’re going to dent into that. Maybe we are not going to eliminate the 93 percent. Maybe we are only going to eliminate 80 percent. Maybe, in order to go to 100 percent, we need driverless cars. I’m not going to abandon the technology our customers want. They want an autonomous car. They don’t want the driverless car.

How do you see Google and Apple in this?

Obviously all these technologies are going to require a lot of software. These are software companies, so it is normal that they get interested. Personally, I cannot tell you this is an opportunity or this is a risk. I don’t know. I think we should be very careful about what they are going to bring to the market. It would be a risk if we were sitting, observing and not acting. That would be the risk. It is an opportunity if somehow what they are doing can enrich our products.

I’m curious about what they are going to be bringing to the table.

You’ve had the Nissan Leaf, the biggest-selling electric vehicle. What do you think about Chevy bring the Bolt with its longer range?

That’s expected, that everyone is going to come out with a better version, better range, better batteries. I’m not surprised. I think it is good that we keep enhancing the technology so that electric vehicles become a bigger segment.

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