YOKOHAMA, Japan -- Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn says the potential payoff from pioneering zero-emission cars is worth the risk of investing billions.
Electric vehicles could take 10 percent of the global market by 2020, or roughly 6 million units in annual sales, Ghosn said.
His comments came during the unveiling of the near-production version of Nissan's new electric four-door Leaf hatchback, which goes on sale next year. Nissan showed the Leaf at the Aug. 2 opening of its new global headquarters here.
Where rivals see a niche, Nissan has "a completely different vision," Ghosn said. "We see it as mass market."
Electric-vehicle sales hardly even register in today's market. But Nissan Motor Co., after long trailing Honda Motor Co. and Toyota Motor Corp. in hybrid vehicle technology, sees its lithium ion battery-powered electric vehicles as a way to jump ahead in the green-car race.
The plan calls for funneling billions of dollars over the next several years into building electric-vehicle assembly lines and battery plants for the cars in the United States, Europe and Japan.
Nissan expects its electric-vehicle production capacity to reach 200,000 units a year by 2012.
It has already won a $1.6 billion low-interest loan from the U.S. government to start production at its Smyrna, Tenn., complex. But that will likely be a fraction of the global outlay.
Nissan chose the name Leaf for its new electric car because it has light, airy, natural connotations, said Nissan chief designer Shiro Nakamura. The sky-blue Leaf shown Aug. 2 is very close to production version that will go on sale next year in the United States and Japan, he added.
Designers sought a distinctive green-car look but shunned the stereotypical toylike appearance of electric concept cars in favor of lines that recall a "real car," Nakamura said.
The Leaf seats five adults and is slightly wider and longer than the Nissan Versa. It has a range of 100 miles per charge. Pricing has not been announced -- and price will be a key challenge.
The Leaf's lithium ion batteries alone cost around $10,000 per vehicle, said Noboru Tateishi, program director for Nissan's electric vehicle projects.
Ghosn said the goal is to bring the price of the car, minus the battery, to the same range as a comparable gasoline-engine car. Consumers likely would lease the battery at a cost that, including charging, will be cheaper than what they would have paid for gasoline, he said.
Nissan wants to mass-market its electric vehicles globally by 2012.