TOKYO -- Carlos Ghosn, CEO of zero emissions pioneer Nissan Motor Corp., is going to the ends of the world -- quite literally -- to gain traction for his Leaf electric vehicle.
Today he gave two Leafs to the Kingdom of Bhutan in honor of the king's birthday and pledged more EVs to help electrify the government fleet and taxi pool.
Yes, that's Bhutan. As in the isolated Himalayan Buddhist redoubt.
A country with barely more people than Detroit. A country whose per capita gross domestic product is less than that of Iraq or Namibia. A country that has allowed TVs only since 1999. A country, according to the CIA World Factbook, that has fewer miles of road than Trinidad and Tobago. And a country whose capital city is said to be without a single traffic light.
A country that now has one of the world's most sophisticated vehicles.
Yet, Bhutan's No. 1 export is the clean electricity generated by its cascading mountain rivers. Bhutan is too small and undeveloped to use it all itself. But the government thinks it would make a fine substitute for gasoline powering the country's cars.
The government wants to convert about 80 percent of the country's taxis and its public fleet vehicles to EVs, then propagate EV sales throughout the retail sector.
That's where Ghosn and Nissan come in -- as the makers of the world's best-selling electric car. By agreeing to supply zero emissions vehicles to Bhutan, the Japanese carmaker can showcase the technology in a unique niche market, where electricity is clean and cheap.
"It's the perfect poster child for electric cars," Executive Vice President Andy Palmer said in a telephone interview from Bhutan. "If Bhutan can make it happen, as one of the poorest nations, then other, richer nations can do it, too."
Bhutan has in place a two-year ban on importing vehicles, but it has lifted the restrictions on sales of all-electrics, Palmer said. Under the deal, Nissan will deliver EVs for use as government fleet vehicles, taxis and demonstration cars.
It also pledged quick chargers as part of a national network.
In prepared remarks, Ghosn said Nissan's outreach will "demonstrate how our electric vehicle business can be scaled in emerging markets that are rich in clean-energy."
The big unanswered question: Exactly how big is the scale?
"We're not going to set any volumes overall because we don't know the size of pent-up demand," Palmer said. He estimated the size of the government fleet at fewer than 100 vehicles. News reports peg the taxi fleet in the capital, Thimphu, at around 3,500 vehicles.
That is incremental volume to be sure. But Nissan is looking to grab sales anywhere it can.
Last year, Leaf sales in the United States hit 22,610 units, up 130 percent from 9,819 in 2012. And in January, Nissan sold 1,252 Leafs there, its best-ever total for January. Also last month, the Leaf reached its 100,000-unit sales milestone, three years after its 2010 debut.