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David Kiley

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Carlos Ghosn Is Alone In 'All-In' Position on Electric Vehicles

Posted: 01/13/12 04:43 PM ET

When Renault-Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn starts talking about electric cars, it's easy to think at least one house on every block in America will have one in a decade or two.

The CEO, who as recently as 2007 was angling to essentially take over General Motors, is almost over-confident about electric vehicles while his peers remain, at best, cautiously even-tempered about the future of EVs.

Nissan's big EV gambit so far is the Leaf, an EV hatchback that is meant to get about 100 miles on a charge, but for me, only got 80 miles when I tested it last year. Nissan sold just under 10,000 Leafs last year.

"But that was only in nine states (including California)," notes Ghosn. "If we can't double that this year as we expand production and distribution, then we don't know what we are doing." Ghosn said this to a gaggle of reporters in a roundtable interview at the North American International Auto Show this week.

The eyes of EV critics and skeptics--and there are many--are on monthly sales of Leaf and the Chevy Volt extended-range EV. According to Ghosn, the company's only problem selling Leafs is lack of production. "If we had had more, we'd have sold more." he said.

Leafs are built in Japan for now, as are the lithium-ion batteries used to propel them down the road. Supply was curtailed in 2011 by the effects of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan last March. But Nissan is moving production for both cars and batteries to its Tennessee facility by the end of this year, which will not only provide more supply but help with the cost since the strong Japanese yen is driving up the cost of building the Leaf in Japan.

The acceptance of electric vehicles by consumers is still very much up in the air, so long as the price of regular gas stays between $3.20 and $3.75 per gallon. Another wild card is how many people will embrace EVs -- unlike the Chevy Volt, they rely totally on electricity and the ability to conveniently re-charge. Ghosn says research on early Leaf buyers shows that the average daily driving distance of owners is about 20 miles, well under the range of the car.

Ghosn also said that more than half the buyers have the Leaf as the household's primary vehicle, not a secondary one.

The logical question to be asking is what the ceiling is on committed "green" consumers and early adopters of new technology. For all the hype and popularity of the Toyota Prius, all hybrid sales account for less than 2% of the U.S. market.

Prius dominates that portion, which means all other brands are still fighting for scraps in the pool of hybrid buyers. And unlike EVs, there are no limitations or fears of running out of power with a hybrid. Sales of hybrids have been tied to gas prices. And the U.S. government is allergic to the idea of boosting gas taxes to help pay for roads and bridges, let alone to help along the sales of EVs, hybrids and fuel efficient clean diesel vehicles.

Ghosn is, above anyone else in the global auto industry, probably placing the biggest bet on EVs being a significant part of the world auto market by 2020. He says he believes they will represent 10% of world sales by then. That prediction hinges a lot on the adoption of EVs in Europe and China.

How much is he betting? He says his companies have invested a combined four billion euros ($5.6 billion U.S. at the current exchange rate) into EV technology, with even more electric tech spending to come.

Ghosn is clearly out to lead in a space that still makes many of his peers skittish. That makes him a bit of a gun-slinger in my eyes. His goal is to have Renault-Nissan become the worldwide leaders in the EV segment.

Hard to knock a guy whose goal is to lead his industry in something besides profitability.