In my quest to understand the nature of business-government relationships in China's auto industry, I talk to a lot of people, rack up a fair amount of frequent flyer miles, and visit a lot of websites. Today I had the occasion to visit Nissan's zero-emission website to learn more about their new "Leaf" electric vehicle.
Nissan has an important joint venture with Dongfeng, one of China's larger manufacturers of passenger cars, and I wanted to know what Nissan is doing to bring their zero-emission technology to China.
Because I visit dozens, perhaps hundreds, of websites weekly, I've suffered through a lot of poorly designed sites and very unnecessary eye-candy in an effort to find the information I seek. This Nissan-global zero-emission website, however, is not only impressive for its sleek and intuitive design, but its content as well. (And, no, Nissan is not paying me to plug their site; I am honestly that impressed with what I have seen.)
First, on the content side, I am interested by the fact that Nissan is touting its partnerships with governments, not other companies as I had expected. While I know they have some corporate partners as well, this interactive map shows the governments that Nissan is working with to roll out technology infrastructure to support zero-emission vehicles.
Also of interest is the fact that Nissan is working with different levels of governments. In some countries such as Portugal and Ireland, their partnership is with a central government, and covers an entire country. In other countries, such as the United States, their partnerships are with various state and local governments: the State of Oregon, Sonoma County, CA, San Diego, Phoenix-Tucson, the State of Tennessee, etc.
In China, they have both a central government partner, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, and a local government partner, the City of Wuhan (which also happens to be the headquarters city of Nissan's JV partner, Dongfeng).
I know that some commentators have been critical of Renalt-Nissan's leader Carlos Ghosn for leapfrogging the hybrid stage and aiming straight for zero-emission vehicles, but I am impressed with the way in which Nissan has been charging forward on this. Rather than taking an interim, incremental step with hybrids, Nissan is partnering with governments to confront directly the chicken-and-egg issue of electric cars and charging infrastructure.
I cannot opine as to whether this makes business sense, but, as someone who would like to breathe cleaner air now, not 20 years from now, I wish Nissan well. As a political scientist, I agree with Nissan that governments are really the only likely partners for building out infrastructure. Bound as they are not to achieve a short-term return on their investments, governments lack the disincentives that would prevent most private sector businesses from taking such a bold move.
Why is Nissan taking this risk? My guess is that it has something to do with the guy at the top. Carlos Ghosn is no shrinking violet, and my sense is that, having fallen a little behind on hybrid development, Mr. Ghosn sees the only wise move as making a giant leap forward rather than running to catch up with pretty much everyone else on the hybrid bandwagon.
As for Nissan's zero-emission website, all I can say is that it's pretty cool. In about five minutes, I was able to get a pretty good idea of the projects Nissan has cooking. I also learned enough about the new Leaf electric vehicle to know that I want one. (Okay, to be honest, I'd rather have a Tesla, but the Leaf would probably be a more practical option for my bank account.) Check out the Leaf's gallery.