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5 Questions with: Carlos Ghosn, CEO of Nissan and electric-car champion

Under the leadership of Carlos Ghosn (pronounced “Go-an”), Nissan has been known to be more bullish on the future of electric cars than perhaps any established automaker in the industry. Even in the face of faltering initial sales of electric cars, Ghosn remains optimistic.

As the CEO who successfully rescued Nissan from bankruptcy in 2003, when Ghosn talks, people listen. So when we caught up with the Brazilian-born, multi-lingual CEO of Nissan and Renault for a few minutes at a media roundtable at the 2012 New York International Auto Show, we were all ears. Here’s Ghosn’s case for investing in electric cars:

Q: You targeted 10,000 Nissan Leaf sales a year for 2011 and 20,000 for 2012. Yet you sold less than 8,000 Leafs last year. Are slow sales of the Leaf and other primarily electric cars worrisome, or just a temporary blip?
I’m very bullish on the [prospects] of the electric car. We can get to these numbers. We’re not worried about it.

When we planned for the electric car, with the yen at $110 to the dollar in 2006, we couldn’t imagine [a] 30-percent change in the value of the yen. At the moment, the yen at $82 to the dollar has been a real headwind to the sales of the car. So that’s why you’re seeing a little bit of restraint on our part.

We did not go very aggressively in promoting the Leaf. We have limited the sales to some states. We’re starting to sell on a national basis this month. But the cars are not even available at the dealers. They’re going to start to be available nationwide at dealers in July. So we cannot say that the Leaf is at full potential in the United States.

The infrastructure is … also [an obstacle]. We’re going to have to be a little bit patient with having the appropriate environment for this part of the transportation network in the U.S.

You’re going to see a real ramp up of our sales with the localization of our production in the U.S. (Note: Production in Tennessee starts in August.) We’ll see sales above 2,000 [a month] when we start the local production. So yes, I feel very good about this objective.
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