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Friday, March 5, 2010

Nissan chief predicts scramble for electric car output

Carmakers will be scrambling to meet demand for electric cars – and the lithium batteries that power them – within the next two years, Carlos Ghosn, chief executive of Renault and Nissan, has predicted.

Mr Ghosn said at the Geneva motor show on Wednesday that Renault and Nissan stood to profit because they would be "the only one on the market" with an electric car by 2011.

"If I had to make a bet today, I'd say we're going to be very quickly in short capacity for electric cars," said Mr Ghosn. "From everything I'm seeing, in 2011 or 2012 we're going to have to rush to build capacity for both batteries and cars."

Renault and Nissan are installing capacity to build about 150,000 such cars in Japan, 200,000 in Europe and more than 200,000 in the US. "We're putting the system in place – who else is doing that?" he said.

The allied French and Japanese carmakers are pushing more aggressively than other big car producers into pure battery electric vehicles, in spite of a widespread view among their competitors and industry analysts that they will be little more than a niche product.

While Renault and Nissan say they will be the first to market electric cars in 2011 in any large volume, PSA Peugeot Citroën plans to launch two electric cars in Europe this year, and Mitsubishi's i-MiEV is already on the road in Japan.

Unlike hybrids such as the Toyota Prius, battery-run cars do not have engines or other "range extenders" on board to keep them running when their power runs out. Public recharging infrastructure for cars is only now being built on a large scale. Despite uncertainty over demand, carmakers have been showing prototypes of planned electric models in Geneva.

"I don't think that showing a car means you're ready for the offensive," Mr Ghosn said. Nissan will soon begin taking orders in Japan and Europe for its all-electric Leaf.

Mr Ghosn said Israel had ordered 100,000 units of Renault's Fluence sedan as part of a scheme to roll out electric cars and recharging infrastructure. The French government has spoken of putting about 100,000 electric cars in its fleet.

"The numbers are deep, and I think we're going to need more capacity," Mr Ghosn said. "[However] we're not going to invest more before we see the reaction of the market."

Renault's bullishness contrasts with the scepticism of some of its potential competitors, which are forecasting modest sales of electric cars.

Takanobu Ito, Honda chief, said it planned to launch a battery electric vehicle for commuters. Despite the sales success of Toyota's Prius which remains the top-selling car in Japan for the 10th month straight, he added: "We are not expecting too much sales volumes for this model." Rupert Stadler, head of Audi, said: "We'll only know in 10 years if [electric cars] are worth it."

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