How automotive brands innovate

Nissan and Renault chief executive Carlos Ghosn has been credited with turning around failing Nissan at the end of the 1990s and for investing in green technology to produce the Leaf, the first mass-market all-electric car.

Nissan DeltaWing: Claims to use half the amount of fuel than rival racing cars

“If you look at the way Nissan does things, it sets a direction and sticks to it. Carlos has done this on a number of occasions. He has an innovative mindset and does not let the current affairs of the day knock him off course,” says Darren Cox, general manager of brand and innovation at Nissan Europe.

The Nissan Leaf has now been on the market for a year, but during the three years it took to develop, the financial crisis hit, not to mention the tsunami in Japan and widespread flooding in Thailand that affected Nissan’s supply chain. There were a lot of opportunities to stop the investment, says Cox, but they pressed on.

The culture within Nissan is one that encourages innovation, claims Cox. “The chief executive does say the power comes from within, so unless we get our engineers, marketers and designers to innovate then we are dead within our industry. We need to differentiate within ourselves, so our employees are encouraged to be innovative and break conventions.”

This approach saw the launch of the Nissan DeltaWing this month (right). The racing car has been developed to use half the normal amount of fuel for a track vehicle and will test those claims in the Le Mans 24 Hours race later this year.

The Nissan Leaf was named Car of the Year 2011, while this year’s award – announced this month – went to the Vauxhall Ampera. It is also an electric car with a battery that will last about 40 miles. But the difference between this and other electric vehicles is that when the battery runs out, a generator takes over to run the car for up to another 300 miles.

Despite General Motors, which owns Vauxhall, filing for bankruptcy in the US in 2009, being publicly berated by president Barack Obama and then being bailed out by the US government, it has still produced two vehicles that won Car of the Year awards.

That success followed a time when electric vehicle launches weren’t so successful, admits Denis Chick, director of communications at General Motors UK. “We previously developed a futuristic car but it was very expensive and there was no charging infrastructure, so it didn’t sell in very big numbers.

Car of the Year: The Vauxhall Ampera electric vehicle won this year’s award

“The company was chastised for spending so much money on it and creating a vehicle that wasn’t very usable. It wasn’t their fault, they were just trying to kick-start a revolution in efficient motoring.”

Chick adds that GM has spent the last couple of years explaining to the press how the Ampera will work and has had to take an innovative approach to calming fears about ‘range anxiety’, where people assume that the battery will run out and leave them stranded.

“Journalists didn’t understand how easy it is to live with. We built a small village for them to stay in overnight and spend a day in the life of the vehicle. We set them challenges and explained the cost of living using electricity. For the price of the electricity needed to make a cup of tea and a slice of toast, you can drive 15 miles.” The Ampera can go 370 miles before it needs recharging.

Chick claims that all staff are encouraged to share ideas, including those on the production line who suggested a more efficient way to build vans. “There are constant communications top down and sideways. People feel engaged rather than working in silos. It has to be in the culture and come from the top.”

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