Photo: AP
The Morning ShiftAll your daily car news in one convenient place. Isn't your time more important?   

A plot was afoot at Nissan-Renault-Mitsubishi to remove boss Carlos Ghosn, according to Carlos Ghosn himself from a Tokyo jail, Elon Musk flies around a lot, either Volkswagen or Nissan are the biggest carmakers in the world depending on how you look at it and much more for The Morning Shift of Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2019.

1st Gear: Now Carlos Ghosn Even Says He Got Whacked

Carlos Ghosn, once one of the most powerful businessmen in the world, now sits in a Tokyo jail without bail awaiting trial on financial misconduct charges. But early on, the rumor was that because he wanted to fully legally merge and integrate Nissan, Renault and Mitsubishi—they’re just in an “alliance” for now—forces from within the Japanese parts of the company moved to have him put out of commission. Whacked, if you will.

After all, while the alliance has been successful from a sales standpoint and has far outlived less successful partnerships, it’s not all smooth sailing. The Japanese automakers don’t love the control the French government has over Renault, for example. And Nissan is considerably bigger than Renault in terms of sales. One guy was largely holding this alliance together, it felt like. So when Ghosn was arrested in Japan not long after working toward merger plans, naturally it raised the question of whether people wanted him gone—for good.

Advertisement

Now, in an exclusive interview from jail with the Nikkei Asian Review, Ghosn said he has “‘no doubt’ that the charges against him were the result of ‘plot and treason’ by Nissan executives opposed to his plan for deeper integration between Renault and its two Japanese alliance partners.” He did not mince words.

From the story:

Speaking in his first interview since being detained on Nov. 19, Ghosn acknowledged that “there was a plan to integrate” Renault, Nissan and Mitsubishi Motors. The plans had been discussed with Nissan president Hiroto Saikawa in September, he added.

Ghosn claimed that he had wanted to include Mitsubishi Motors CEO Osamu Masuko in the talks, but “Saikawa wanted it one-on-one.”

Once the three automakers were more closely integrated, Ghosn wanted to ensure there would be “autonomy under one holding company,” he said, adding that this plan was in line with how he had operated the alliance in past years.

Allies of Ghosn’s have argued that some Nissan executives feared a further concentration of power under his leadership, prompting them to cooperate with Tokyo Prosecutors.

Advertisement

Nissan’s executives have adamantly denied that a coup was staged to remove Ghosn. And as for the fallen alliance leader, he says all the things seen as financial impropriety—improper payments from a Nissan-Mitsubishi joint venture, payments to a company run by Saudi businessman Khaled al-Juffali, improperly purchased luxury homes—were vetted by the company’s lawyers and on the up and up.

“[Have I] done [something] inappropriate? I am not a lawyer, I don’t know the interpretation of [such] facts,” Ghosn said, showing his frustration over Nissan’s internal investigation.

“These are known by everybody, why didn’t they tell me?”

Ghosn added that he won’t flee Japan if he is released on bail. Full interview here.

Advertisement

2nd Gear: At Least Nissan-Renault Is No. 1, Sort Of

It’s never a great look when your top boss is in jail, your CEO was probably ordered to fall on his sword in some way and the executive ranks of your company are being summarily purged. But! At least the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi was tops in light vehicle sales in 2018, per Automotive News:

The Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi alliance sold 10.76 million light vehicles globally last year, outpacing rivals Volkswagen Group and Toyota if heavy truck sales are excluded from their sales results.

Nissan said on Wednesday it sold 5.65 million vehicles last year, down 2.8 percent on the year. Mitsubishi reported an 18 percent rise in sales to 1.22 million units while Renault sold 3.88 million units, up 3.2 percent. The three-way alliance does not sell heavy trucks.

Many automakers are trying to boost sales volumes to achieve economies of scale and reduce costs amid soaring investments needed to develop next-generation technologies, including self-driving cars and electric vehicles.

This has been a focus of the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi alliance, which is looking to share more vehicle parts and consolidate production platforms to trim r&d and manufacturing costs, while raising profitability.

Advertisement

Congrats! And good luck with the... other stuff.

3rd Gear: VW’s Warning

Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi may have been the light vehicle sales champion in 2018, but that’s only if you don’t count heavy trucks. If you do, Volkswagen—which counts its MAN and Scania truck divisions among its many brands—was the tops at 10.8 million vehicles.

Advertisement

Still, VW doesn’t mince words about challenges ahead in 2019: Declining sales, especially in China, the costs of moving to electrification, shaky trade markets globally and more. Via Bloomberg:

VW and Germany’s BMW AG have warned of challenges this year, including trade spats that threaten to exacerbate an already cooling global economy. Stricter emission rules worldwide are set to force manufacturers to sell more battery-powered cars that are less profitable than combustion vehicles. The squeeze is already becoming evident. Ford Motor Co. and Jaguar Land Rover this month announced thousands of job cuts in Europe.

“Global car manufacturers are taking measures to limit the impact of a deteriorating environment in several markets, and potential pressure on earnings and cash generation coming from declining new vehicle sales,” Fitch Ratings said in a report. That said, many companies entering this phase of the cycle are “better positioned than the last downturn,” according to the ratings agency.

VW is betting on fresh models like the small T-Cross crossover, the Seat Tarraco and the updated Audi Q3 to help sustain demand despite growing headwinds. The Audi premium-car brand, its largest profit contributor, will start rolling out its first all-electric model E-Tron later this year. The market for battery-powered luxury sedans has so far been effectively dominated by Tesla Inc.

Advertisement

VW in particular is poised to spend billions in the coming years as it prepares to go electric in a big way.

4th Gear: Our Star Boy Takes to the Skies a Lot

Being the most visible and bombastic figure in the automotive industry at the moment, Tesla’s Elon Musk takes a lot of heat from a lot of directions. Some of it’s justified, like the batshit tweets that lead to lawsuits by investors and the Securities and Exchange Commission. Some of it’s overblown.

Advertisement

The latest criticism to come down the pipeline is over Musk’s air travel. According to the Washington Post, despite being an ardent activist against fossil fuels and climate change, he takes private jet flights a lot—100 times more last year than even Amazon’s Jeff Bezos did. That’s a lot of gas burned and a lot of carbon put into the atmosphere, and were largely paid for by Tesla itself.

But now you’re saying: “Oh, come on. The guy has a huge, growing global car empire. He has to get around. Are we really doing this?” Well:

The billionaire executive’s frequent travel on a private plane was largely paid for by Tesla, the cash-burning automaker that faces billions of dollars in debt and has laid off thousands of employees within the last year, including slashing 7 percent of its workforce this month.

Advertisement

Hmm.

But Musk’s relentless schedule was eased by a level of convenience and luxury few but the ultrawealthy can afford. Some of the flights were recreational getaways for Musk or his family, while others involved moving the plane from one side of Los Angeles to the other to help Musk shorten his commutes.

Advertisement

Oh.

But it also reveals an awkward dynamic for one of the world’s most outspoken crusaders of renewable energy: In September, a few days after calling fossil fuels “the dumbest experiment in human history,” his plane burned thousands of pounds of jet fuel flying 300 miles from L.A. to Oakland so Musk could view a competitive video-gaming event.

Advertisement

Well...

But the flight records reveal some gaps in Musk’s self-assessment of a ceaselessly “excruciating” year. In a New York Times interview last summer, Musk said he spent his 47th birthday working nonstop in the Tesla factory “all night — no friends, nothing,” before flying to his brother’s wedding in Spain, saying he arrived shortly before the ceremony and left immediately afterward to rush straight back to work.

The interview did not mention, however, that Musk actually left the ceremony on the Spanish coast and flew to Northern Ireland, where he visited the film set for the HBO fantasy epic “Game of Thrones” with his children and ate dinner at a Belfast pub, according to local media reports. (“Belfast is beautiful,” Musk tweeted after the trip.) That trip was three weeks after Musk announced Tesla would lay off about 3,500 employees, or 9 percent of its workforce, as part of a reorganization he called “difficult, but necessary.”

Advertisement

(Nods slowly)

A spokesman for Tesla defended the air travel, saying “Until we can teleport, there’s unfortunately no alternative that would allow him to do his job as effectively.”

Advertisement

I get that. But maybe we can all agree it’s not a fantastic look when big layoffs are happening?

Anyway, tax billionaires more.

5th Gear: The Tacoma Isn’t Afraid of You

Photo: Toyota

Advertisement

In recent years the midsize (You can’t really call them “small”) truck wars have heated up, with the Chevrolet Colorado being a surprise hit and the new Ford Ranger probably poised to do the same. This is a market the Toyota Tacoma almost had to itself for a while—Nissan’s truck sales are negligible—but now the competition’s fiercer than ever.

So with its new refresh for 2019 coming up, the Tacoma has this to say to rivals: I’m not locked in here with you. You’re locked in here with me. Via Automotive News:

The Tacoma commanded a staggering 47 percent market share among midsize pickups last year, making it among the most dominant vehicle in its own segment. For comparison, the Tesla Model 3 last year grabbed an estimated 71 percent of a full-electric segment, but the Tacoma outsold that whole EV segment by about 50,000 units.

And if that all weren’t evidence enough of Tacoma’s dominant position in the battle to come, a survey done late last year by Autolist.com found that the Tacoma had a staggering 86 percent name recognition among 1,460 current vehicle shoppers — the best among any midsize pickup.

To a person, Toyota Motor North America’s top executives say they welcome the return of Ford and FCA to the midsize pickup segment, where their added advertising dollars are sure to stoke interest in the segment as a whole.

“Whenever new competitors come in, you always want to be the best,” Toyota Division General Manager Jack Hollis told Automotive News last month. Any new competitor “makes us want to be better and keep looking for ways to improve. That’s part of the Toyota DNA.”

Advertisement

We’ve always loved the Tacoma around these parts, but it hasn’t felt as fresh as some rivals lately. Let’s see if Toyota can fix that—but it still sells roughly twice as many Tacomas per month than Chevrolet does Colorados. I doubt Toyota’s worried.

Reverse: Happy Birthday to Mazda, One Of the Good Ones

Advertisement

Neutral: Is Elon Musk’s Air Travel a Problem?

Cost of being the big boss, or something he should cut back on in 2019?