Of course, in plenty of cases the two companies have agreed to work together. Take powertrains.
The Nissan Versa hatchback, which went on sale in July in the United States, uses an engine developed by the alliance. Its six-speed manual transmission comes from Renault.
Nissan currently supplies two engines and a truck rear differential to Renault. Renault supplies two engines and two transmissions to Nissan. They have jointly developed five engines or transmissions.
That adds up to about 100,000 engines and 600,000 transmissions this year, says Kazumasa Katoh, Renault's senior vice president for powertrain engineering. By 2009, the totals will rise to close to 400,000 engines and more than 1 million transmissions, he predicts.
Cumulative savings for the two companies in powertrains since 1999 total 200 million euros, or $253.8 million at current exchange rates, Katoh says.
Share and share alike
The companies accept that joint development works only if both companies are going to use the powertrains about equally. If one company is going to use 90 percent of a planned engine, it develops that engine alone and sells it to the partner.
The companies also share compact, small and mid-sized car platforms.
"Platform sharing for us has been most successful when both are trying to serve a similar market," says Thomas Lane, Nissan's vice president of product planning for large vehicles. He was the program director for the Altima.
For example, Renault wanted a small, fuel-efficient car to sell in Europe. Nissan wanted a similar vehicle to sell in Europe and Japan. The resulting Nissan Micra and Renault Clio share powertrains, platforms and other parts.
But the two companies' goals were different for mid-sized cars. Nissan wanted a larger, higher-displacement gasoline engine for the Altima to take on the Toyota Camry. Renault's similar-sized Laguna would be sold exclusively in Europe at some of the brand's highest price points. It needed a diesel engine.
The two sides knew the level of sharing would be limited. Still, "The program directors were pushing really, really hard for commonality," Lane says.
"Program directors are responsible for the profitability of their vehicles. Their motivation is to push engineering every way they can to cut development and engineering costs."
Unable to share a full platform, the two sides spent a year seeking smaller components to share. Lane says the time was well-spent.
'Greater degree of trust'
During the early years of the alliance, the Nissan Micra and Renault Clio development teams shared a platform because top management told them to. Later, the Altima and Laguna teams sought ways to share components because that helped them reach cost targets. A similar shift across the alliance represents an evolution in the relationship.
In the early days, top management set targets for platform sharing and joint purchasing. They created structures to encourage the two sides to talk. Today the communications are more informal, and ideas bubble up from below as often as they are imposed from above.
Initially, says Nissan's Palmer, if he needed some advice, "I would make an appointment with the cross-company team secretary to put it on the agenda, and it would go to a study team."
Today he picks up the phone and calls his counterpart at Renault. "There's a certain amount of informality that comes from a greater degree of trust," he says.
Teams from factories arrange visits to study each other directly without asking headquarters for permission. "That's much better. It happens not because of orders from above but voluntarily," says Tadao Takahashi, Nissan's executive vice president of manufacturing.
'Whoa, slow down'
Patrick Pelata, Renault's executive vice president for product planning and programs, recently was pleasantly shocked to learn that over the past year, engineers from the two companies have swapped ideas and made "30 or 40" changes in simulation software. The work was approved by immediate supervisors but didn't go all the way to top management for the go-ahead.
This is "core engineering know-how on how to simulate a specific element of steering or comfort," Pelata says. If an engineer had come to him and suggested they try to create common simulation software, "I would have said, 'Whoa, slow down,' " he says.
In fact, top executives expect to see the performance-driven alliance lead to that sort of initiative. "If you put both companies on their toes, they will look for resources to get the performance that's requested," says Pelata. "They'll first look on their own, then look to the alliance."
You may e-mail James B. Treece at [email protected]