Renault-Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn on the future of cars

Last week, car manufacturers unveiled their latest and greatest at the Paris Motor Show. Even more interesting, these shows are a great opportunity to talk about their vision when it comes to car innovation.

Renault-Nissan is the fourth largest car maker in the world. And yet, Tesla seems to be getting more headlines. I got the chance to interview Renault-Nissan’s CEO Carlos Ghosn to talk about self-driving cars, electric cars and the company’s recent partnership with Microsoft. This interview was slightly edited for clarity.

TechCrunch: What are you going to unveil at the Paris Motor Show this week?

Carlos Ghosn: Many things. The most important revealing is the Micra. This is a very important car, it’s an iconic car for Nissan. We sold more than 7 million Micra cars already worldwide — half of them in Europe. This is a segment that is extremely competitive in Europe.

So we’re coming with a product, which is bigger, lower, wider and sleeker when it comes to internal design. In terms of equipment, it is an equipment of a higher category than the usual equipment in this segment. And third, in term of safety and driving, it is a very competitive car. So we really think we have a strong product in order to regain our position in this competitive segment. This is the main offer for Nissan today.

TC: And you also unveiled some new offerings for the Renault Zoe as well?

CG: On Renault’s side, we have shown mainly two things. On top of unveiling a complete renewal of the product range, we have shown a Zoe with double the range. The range is now above 300 kilometers [186 miles] in real driving condition, urban and suburban. And this is available now, meaning that you can order the car today and get it before the end of the year.

Most of the competition is talking about delivering the same range two years down the road or four years down the road. Zoe is ready now. That’s point number one.

And point number two, we’ve shown a concept car, which is called Trésor. And Trésor is a preview of the next generation of Renault cars.

We’ve totally renewed the product range of Renault over the last three or four years. Now we’re getting into a new cycle and this concept car shows not only in terms of design but also in terms of technological features the bricks that are going to constitute the elements on which we’re going to be building the next generation of cars.

TC: Do you think you’re ahead of the competition when it comes to electric cars with this new range?

CG: As you know, the [Renault-Nissan] alliance represents 50 percent of the sales of electric cars worldwide. We’ve sold more than 350,000 electric cars so we’re by far the car maker with the most experience when it comes to electric cars.

We think with Zoe’s 300 kilometers real range or 400 kilometers standard range, it is the most competitive car in terms of range. I think we electric cars we want to maintain our lead and we want to continue to bring a lot of technology. So obviously we’re reluctant to talk about what’s coming three, four or five years down the road because we’re already on this market. We don’t want to hurt our current state.

That’s why you can hear a lot of projects from the competition coming three or four years down the road because they don’t have electric cars so they’re not hurting their current state…

TC: You’re talking about Volkswagen, for example…

CG: Most of them. Because if you’re not selling cars today, you can imagine a lot of cars for the future because it’s not going to hurt your sales. So we’re not doing that. We’re concentrating on the current performance.

TC: Let’s switch gears a bit. You announced a partnership with Microsoft this week. A few months ago, you also announced that you’re going to release ten different self-driving cars by 2020. Can you tell us more about the timeline?

CG: Obviously, as you know on self-driving cars we have to be very careful because you have different levels of autonomy. Today, we have already launched in Japan the one-lane highway autonomy — we call it the ProPilot. It’s already on, it’s having a lot of success because most of the people ordering the Serena are ordering with this feature even though it’s a paid upgrade.

So we know that autonomy is something of high interest for the consumers. This is the first brick — one-lane highway. Then you’re going to have multi-lane highway, and then you’re going to have urban driving. All of these steps are going to come before 2020. In 2020, you’re going to have what we call a totally autonomous-driven car — hopefully totally in line with the regulation.

2020 for the autonomous car in urban conditions, probably 2025 for the driverless car Carlos Ghosn

This is different from the driverless car. The driverless car is a completely different technology and we think the technology will be ready well before the regulators will be ready to accept these cars. I’m not talking about driverless cars in a small area with fences — no, I’m talking about a completely driverless car. 2020 for the autonomous car in urban conditions, probably 2025 for the driverless car.

And Microsoft is very important for us because this is where tech companies and car makers can join forces, each one doing its job. I’m not trying to be a tech company, and the tech company is not trying to be a car maker. Here we are, joining forces and trying to exchange what they can do best and what we can do best in order to promote what we both think is the future — an electric car, connected and autonomous.

TC: Microsoft isn’t working on a self-driving car but other tech companies are, such as Google, Uber or even Apple…

CG: Microsoft will help us get some of the technological bricks that we need so that we can build the car. I understand that many tech companies are going further than that. But we’re very happy with this alliance with Microsoft because we think that it’s a company with plenty of resources, talent.

They’re going to make our approach to autonomous and connected car much more solid. And they’ll probably help us make some important decisions with all the knowledge that they have.

TC: Is this Microsoft agreement a sign that you’re going to partner with more companies or are you going to work on some key technologies in-house?

CG: We’re going to partner with more companies. We don’t develop a technology for the sake of developing a technology. We develop a technology when we think nobody is developing it. But if somebody can develop a technology for us and put it in our cars…

At the end of the day, we’re architects. We’re architects of parts, we’re architects of technologies. We assemble technologies, we assemble parts to make a product. So we don’t have to do every single part, we don’t have to do every single technology. But we have to do them when nobody is doing them.

We don’t develop a technology for the sake of developing a technology. We develop a technology when we think nobody is developing it. Carlos Ghosn

That’s one of the reasons we made batteries when we started manufacturing electric cars. There was no battery on the market in 2007 to make a good electric car. Now that everybody believes in electric cars, we have plenty of suppliers making batteries. So it means that we shouldn’t invest so much on batteries because other people are investing on batteries.

TC: Other tech companies, such as Drivy and BlaBlaCar, are making it easier to share your car with others. Do you think it could be a risk and hurt sales?

CG: Without any doubt, I think there will be more shared cars in the future. Will this be the dominant trend? I don’t think so. One of the reasons why I doubt it is the development of the connectivity into the car, which is going to turn the car into a very intimate place for you. You’re going to have your video conferences, your photos, your videos, your internet…

And we know that when the car becomes a space where you work, where you connect, it becomes very personal and you don’t want to share it. We see the same thing with smartphones for example.

So we have to be careful. Yes, there will be more shared cars in the future. Will this be a decisive trend? I doubt it.