YOKOHAMA, Japan -- Hiroto Saikawa, Nissan Motor Co.'s new CEO, aims to keep the company growing. He wants to enhance its electric-vehicle position even as rivals ramp up, and take advantage of a new alliance with Mitsubishi Motors Corp.
Saikawa, 63, spoke Tuesday, April 4, with Asia Editor Hans Greimel at Nissan's global headquarters here.
Q: You are Nissan's first Japanese CEO since 2001. How significant is that?
A: In day-to-day operations, I have to say I am pretty confident I can run the company. I don't feel any kind of anxiety in taking over the job from Mr. [Carlos] Ghosn. We have been doing it together for a long time. And step by step, I've been taking over roles. So I'm pretty comfortable.
What will the next business plan be like?
Part of the next plan is going to be steady growth built on the foundation we made in the last six years.
How will Nissan deliver on its goal of being a leader in electrification? It hasn't moved the needle much since the Leaf debuted in 2010.
[Competitors are] already announcing plans. But they haven't done anything.
We believe [EVs are] still in a kind of introductory phase. Nobody is seriously in the business at this stage.
The first part [will come] when you overcome [range anxiety], which is coming soon.
Will that be based on a new battery technology?
On an evolution of the lithium ion battery. But from a cost performance, there is still some time [needed] to completely replace, with the same economical equation, the combustion engine. We don't know exactly the timeline. But that will take from the year 2020 to 2025 range. Then serious substitution will start. Combustion engines, part of them, will be replaced by electrics.
What is Nissan's strategy in that period?
Just being EV does not make any differentiation. Range itself will not be a differentiating factor. It's going to be a kind of normal, traditional competition: How can we make the product an emotionally attractive value to the customer.
When will Nissan ramp up its EV lineup beyond the Leaf?
The real evolution will come when we have a serious plan for the substitution of existing powertrains, say in our major models: the Rogue, Qashqai, X-Trail. A major part of it will be EV. This is the time I'm talking about. Maybe 2025.
But the period of differentiating ourselves by technology is almost over. Then, [it] will be a competition of how aggressively you can deploy the portfolio across the models. We would like to be on the aggressive side, the leading side.
To overcome range anxiety by 2020, what range is necessary?
It depends on the country.
In Japan, already our 30 kilowatt-hour [battery] is almost erasing anxiety. The new Leaf coming will almost completely kill anxiety for specific countries -- Japan and a major part of Europe. I'm sure in one or two years, it is going to erase anxiety in the most difficult one: the U.S.
How long does the range need to be to do that in the U.S.?
What do you think?
Maybe 300 miles?
Good enough. It's a usable range, 300 miles.
How can Nissan and Mitsubishi benefit from working together?
I am from Nissan, so I cannot dictate what Mitsubishi does. We can offer opportunities, and if they are ready to take it, they can take it.
There is matching already in Southeast Asia or even in some functional areas such as sales or finance. This fiscal year, you will see obvious benefits.
Can they cooperate in the U.S.?
In the U.S., I believe Mitsubishi has more potential. Globally, not just for the U.S., they are now a 1 million [unit] company. Easily they can grow to 1.5 million, hopefully 2 million. Having a partner [that is] a 2 million company is much better than having [one that is] a 1 million company. My first wish is that they should start growing, rapidly, and they should regain ground in the U.S. as soon as possible. I strongly believe Mitsubishi can do much better in the U.S. Their brand potential is not as low as you see it.
What is Mitsubishi's greatest potential in the U.S.?
Four-wheel drives. They should focus on their strong point, which is very close to the brand attributes that Subaru has now.