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BW Businessworld

‘Self-driving Cars For All By 2020’

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Andy Palmer, Nissan Motor’s chief planning officer, executive vice-president and Infiniti’s chairman, is an avid punk rock fan, a mathematician, and wants to make the car relevant for the millennial generation. He thinks young people want connected cars that enable zero emission, connect to the cloud and in future, may become autonomous. To Carlos Ghosn, chairman and chief executive officer of Nissan Motors, Andy is the go-to man for any decision about products and market research. He spoke to BW|Businessworld about Infiniti, connected cars, and Datsun’s debut in India, among other things. Excerpts:

What is your vision for Infiniti, especially in the US? You are seeing competition from other luxury carmakers...
The vision is to be an established successful premium brand within our corporation. We are known globally for edgy design, sporty performance and stirring up the German carmaker establishment. We need to get the brand perception right — what does Infiniti stand for now and what do we want it to be? At present, Infiniti has a very US-centric focus, which is understandable given its history and success in the country. The next step will be to establish Infiniti as a global brand, and then, extend the product portfolio. The current line-up is great, sport utility vehicles (SUVs) and sedans alike. We recently announced the Q30 Compact, which is another good and ‘required’ product for Europe; it is also meant to underline the global line-up. But what we need is a ‘halo’ car to underpin the high-performance character. I also envision an electric vehicle with the latest charging facilities to serve consumers’ desire worldwide. Our latest project is the IFA2 platform (common module family or CMF) with partner Daimler to produce compact vehicles. The first plant using this platform will be built in Mexico. Also, efficient engine technologies are high up in the list of priorities for Infiniti cars. One can also see the newest safety shield features from Nissan Motor Corporation such as lane departure warning or forest air climate features being applied to Infiniti to show the premium character.

What is your opinion on connected cars — beyond entertainment modules in cars? What is it that will make connected drive a reality?
Autonomous drive technologies are the key that will make connected drive a reality. At Nissan, we believe that the first mass-market, autonomous drive vehicle could be brought to the market in three stages by 2020 — the first for in-lane driving, the second for multi-lane, and, finally, for intersections. Within two vehicle generations, this technology could be available across Nissan’s entire vehicle portfolio. The technologies offer multiple benefits — better vehicle safety, reduced congestion, better speed management, improved fuel consumption, and lower emissions.

Will connected cars change the telematics modules to connect to databases, networks and then to mobiles of customers. What work are you doing in this space?
Around 1.5 million Nissans will be connected by 2016. The Nissan LEAF is an excellent example — all these cars will be connected and allow us to monitor their health and the typical usage of customers. In principle, I expect all cars to be connected in the near future, although there are differences on how companies will achieve this. At Nissan, we think Big Data is vital for marketing and targeting new vehicles to the target audience.

But what is the purpose of a connected car? Is it active safety combined with entertainment?
I’m pretty sure that one of the questions will be whether self-driving cars are safer than those driven by motorists. The answer is yes. In the US, the government’s research shows that driving errors are likely to be the main reasons behind over 90 per cent of the crashes. More than 40 per cent of fatal crashes involve alcohol, speeding, aggressive driving, distraction, drugs or fatigue. But self-driven vehicles will not allow such human errors. This could potentially lead to reduction of fatal accidents by 40 per cent. Robotic cars don’t drink, don’t text, have a 360-degree view around the vehicle and never doze off. About 100 years ago, the vehicle market underwent a major shift from horse and man-power to the use of internal combustion engines, finally delivering individual travel in a way that was beyond imagination. Self-driving vehicles have a huge potential to stimulate an equal transformation in the future. And Nissan will take the lead in this with the introduction of the first autonomous drive system by 2020. There are many reasons to connect a car. Safety is high priority. But it is necessary to make sure that we truly understand our customers and their usage. 

How important is software in cars today and how will the connected car ecosystem work, between consumers, telcos, tier-I vendors, OEMs and dealers? 
Software is a fundamental part of today’s car as a wheel. The Infiniti Q50’s centre display unit has 10 million lines of software in it.

What do you think of Datsun’s debut in India? Has it got the market segmentation right because you are targeting middle-class individuals? 
Remember, income is never a marker for any company; they look at risers over a period of time. I do not like the word ‘middle-class’. But if we have to use it as a terminology, if there is disposable income then what would you buy? Would an individual choose a car over a bike? We need to know if they care about safety. Are they willing to invest in something that will protect the family and satisfy aspiration? I don’t think Datsun is for the US and the UK. Yes, generally, there is the widening gap between rich and poor, and the brand fits a segment below Nissan. But the brand Datsun is not for those markets. It cannot satisfy the safety norms in the US, and hence, can never be manufactured at the current cost it is retailed in India. Datsun is for the markets where people want to aspire and drive for the first time. 

Please throw some light on the battery technology in Nissan and the autonomous LEAF Concept. 
Nissan is a leader in li-ion batteries with Automotive Energy Supply Corporation (AESC) — a joint venture between Nissan and NEC Corporation. Chemistry is evolving each year to enhance energy density, but the most important consideration is safety. This is always Nissan’s top priority.

Why is the CMF platform becoming the preferred one for Nissan? How different will it be from the V-platform? 
The CMF platform is split into three groups: CMF-A, CMF-B and CMF-C/D. The intention is not to have one platform but a collection of modules that can be interchanged in various combinations. Nissan and Renault together make over eight million cars every year, so it gives us a huge purchase power if we can communise modules, but also allows us maximum differentiation. CMF-A will be the first to be seen in India. The key is, of course, the consumer’s purchasing power and infrastructure. India is on a good path for this and that is why everyone is interested in being here. However, understanding consumers is vital and that is why we have decided to introduce Datsun here.

Are car design cycles coming down? As an engineer, what is the next best technology to watch out in cars and why is it important?
Car cycle times are remaining about the same, circa five to six years — but what we are seeing is an explosion in the number of derivatives — the so-called ‘upper-bodies’. I believe, this trend will remain for a while. Of course, you will see hybrids and electric vehicles within the mix, but the underlying trend will be downsized, fuel-efficient engines. 

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twitter: @vishalskrishna

(This story was published in BW | Businessworld Issue Dated 08-09-2014)