Carlos Ghosn was an early proponent of electric cars, telling the world in 2009 that Nissan Motor Co. would lead a revolution to eliminate gas guzzlers with its battery-powered Leaf.
For almost a decade, Ghosn’s $5 billion plan clicked with drivers as the Leaf became the best-selling EV model globally. His commitment while overseeing Nissan and its alliance partner Renault SA helped spawn a wave of competing models from traditional automakers in Detroit, China and Europe, as well as startups like Tesla Inc.
Those rivals are chipping away at the Leaf’s lead by making key advancements in battery capacity, wireless connectivity and autonomous driving, and also by capitalizing on China’s intent to lead the industry into an electric future. Nissan needs to respond, but its plan is hampered by one thing: its iconic former chairman sits in a Japanese jail, accused of committing financial crimes. At this point, the allegations are unproven.
“The Leaf is one of Ghosn’s masterpieces and, under the circumstances, there’s a lot of uncertainty with the model,” said Mei Songlin, former vice president and managing director of China operations for J.D. Power Asia Pacific.
Nissan was set to unveil a new, longer-range version of the Leaf last month in Japan but canceled the premiere after Ghosn’s Nov. 19 arrest. Nissan also called off an event about autonomous driving and EVs with Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike, a former board member of Nissan partner Renault.
Another unveiling ceremony timed with last month’s Los Angeles Auto Show also was postponed.
At a Nov. 30 event to promote Nissan’s participation in Formula E electric-car racing, Roel de Vries, a corporate vice president, declined to comment on Ghosn but stressed the commitment to EVs.
“This is a long-term effort by the whole company,” he said.