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Nissan Revving Up R&D in Battle for Car of the Future

Nissan Revving Up R&D in Battle for Car of the Future

From Back to the Future to The Jetsons, you don’t have to be Jay Leno to realize auto technology is simply fascinating. Development of hybrid, electric, and even driverless cars has been underway for years, not just in Detroit, but in the tech capital of the world --Silicon Valley, California. This is where Breakout’s Jeff Macke sat down with Carlos Ghosn, the CEO of Renault and Nissan.

The Renault-Nissan alliance is the fourth largest automaker in the world, but Nissan alone sold nearly 5 million vehicles in 2012, which grew its business 5.8% year-over-year. Earlier this year, the company joined other automakers like Ford (F), Volkswagen and BMW in the Valley, opening a research lab with 60 new engineers set to be hired in the next three years. They’ve named it NRC-SV (Nissan Research Center Silicon Valley).

“It is totally normal that all car manufacturers have some kind of presence in Silicon Valley,” says Ghosn. “I think it’s a basic condition. What you do here is going to give you an edge.”

At NRC-SV, Ghosn says the focus is on auto technology for self-driving vehicles, Internet connected cars, and perfecting their 100% electric car, the Nissan Leaf.

As of February, there were just over 50,000 Leafs sold worldwide. The numbers are growing slowly, and it seems the challenges are being met at the same pace.

“One of the main headwinds to the development of the electric car is where is the charging infrastructure?” says Ghosn. “People who have tried the electric car, heard about the electric car, are hesitating to jump into this technology mainly because of the infrastructure which is called the range anxiety.”

Nissan estimates there are less than 8,000 charging stations across the U.S., while there are over 130,000 conventional gas stations. Convenience is key to gaining new customers, so Ghosn has to hedge his bet on electric by continually improving existing powertrains.

“We’re also developing hybrids and we continue to develop diesel engine, gasoline engine, flex-fuel engines for Brazil. We have to be, as global carmakers, competent in all of this technology,” he says.

Automobile technology is improving at rapid pace, and the latest hype in the industry is driverless cars.

“There is a lot of development taking place in terms of autonomous driving and a lot of pieces of technology will come, we think, from a good collaboration…with labs of universities, start-ups, even with other companies that are established in Silicon Valley.”

But a car driving you to work while you kick back with your iPad is far from reality. And that’s the point. What Nissan learns in development will go towards improving their entire line of autos.

For example, Nissan collects data from the Leaf through a telematics system. This data will go towards small, incremental changes to alter the overall driving experience.

“The Leaf is going to be the beneficiary of a lot of these technologies, autonomous driving on an electric car is obviously, for us, a must. Still, the other products, 63 other products, will benefit also from our presence here,” he states.

Whatever comes out of their new digs in Silicon Valley, Ghosn is positioning Nissan to be a player all over the globe, seeking to perfect whichever technology gets widely adopted in a given region. It’s all part of a technological evolution that’ll keep improving our driving experiences.

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