Nissan Motors did not unveil a new electric vehicle at the 2018 Consumer Electronics Show. 

The Japanese automaker had a sizable expo display, but opted not to hold a high-production-values press event. Instead, Carlos Ghosn, chairman and CEO of France-based Renault, chairman and former CEO of Japan-based Nissan, as well as chairman of Mitsubishi Motors, held a media Q&A in a conference room.

There were no spotlights and no music -- not even a PowerPoint presentation. 

The event seemed to reflect the automaker’s current market strategy, which Ghosn said is centered on deploying next-generation vehicle technology, rather than peddling concepts -- an approach that is commonplace at CES. For good measure, Nissan showcased "brain-to-vehicle" software at the electronics show, but there's no indication that technology will ever come to market. 

Virtually every automaker in the world is promising to deliver electric, connected and autonomous cars at mass scale. But right now it all comes down to “his story, my story -- what’s the best story?” said Ghosn.

“The only way to measure how advanced you are is to measure how many tools you have on the ground and how much technology you already have on the market,” he said.

Ghosn underscored that the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance is currently the No. 1 seller of pure electric vehicles globally. At the same time, the automotive brands he oversees are enhancing their lineup with the launch of 12 additional all-electric vehicle models and 40 vehicles with autonomous drive technology, as well as a robo-vehicle ride-hailing service, by the end of their mid-term plan for 2022

When it comes to electrification, several other major automakers have announced ambitious plans. General Motors said it will launch 20 new electric and fuel cell vehicles by 2023; Volvo plans to electrify its entire lineup starting in 2019; Toyota said it will offer 10 pure-electric cars starting in 2020 and electrify every car it sells by 2025; and Volkswagen, currently the largest vehicle maker in the world, said it will build electric versions of all 300 vehicles across its 12 brands by 2030.

Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi is now facing some steep competition, but Ghosn insists the Alliance isn’t giving up its leadership position.

“We’re not going to relinquish this; we’re going to continue to bring zero-emissions and electric cars [to market],” he said. 

A $1 billion(ish) fund for next-generation mobility

To reach its 2022 targets, the Alliance announced a new corporate venture capital fund on Tuesday that plans to invest up to $1 billion to support “next-generation mobility” over the next five years.

The new entity, Alliance Ventures, expects to invest $200 million in the first year aimed at startups and open innovation partnerships focused on new mobility solutions, including vehicle electrification, autonomous systems, connectivity and artificial intelligence.

Alliance Ventures will serve as a platform for startups looking to work with the three Alliance members, and will be co-located near research centers in Silicon Valley, Paris, Yokohama and Beijing in order to attract top talent. The fund has already made an investment in Ionic Materials, a Massachusetts-based startup developing solid-state cobalt-free battery materials.

This investment could be a game-changer down the road. Ionic Materials is working on a solid polymer based electrolyte, “which significantly improves the thermal performance and energy density while eliminating the use of cobalt, which are all important requirements for next-generation electric vehicle batteries,” said Ravi Manghani, director of energy storage at GTM Research. That’s why Toyota, Fisker and other automakers are also pursuing this technology.

“Solid-state batteries are the holy grail for electric vehicles,” Manghani said. “Solid-state batteries are still in very early stages of commercial R&D, putting them about five years out. But of course, this could get accelerated if more investments follow.”

But is $1 billion enough?

Spending $1 billion over five years sounds like a lot of money, but it’s relatively modest in the broader auto industry context. General Motors, for instance, acquired San Francisco-based autonomous vehicle tech startup Cruise Automation in a deal estimated at more than $1 billion. And Ford plans to invest $1 billion in a single autonomous vehicle company, Argo AI, in addition to spending $4.5 billion on vehicle electrification between 2015 and 2020.

When asked if the Alliance could decide to invest more through Alliance Ventures, Ghosn responded that the funding targets are currently “guidelines.”

“The evolution of tech is going...very fast, and every year we need to reconsider our plan,” he said.

That plan could be to invest less. “We may revise these numbers one way or the other,” said Ghosn. 

While Nissan was an early leader in the EV space, there is a sense the company has been lagging recently -- at least in the U.S. The Nissan Leaf was among the first mass-market EVs sold in America starting in 2011, and made up a significant chunk of national EV sales for several years. But then sales started to decline as the Leaf hit its seventh year on the market without a major upgrade. 

When Ghosn was pressed on this at CES last year, he said the Alliance has been “extremely conservative” in its communication on electric cars “to make sure that the cars we’re putting on the market can compete.”

Nissan’s real answer for skeptics came in September at the Tokyo Auto Show, where the company unveiled the next-generation Leaf. The new Leaf is outfitted with a 40-kilowatt-hour battery that provides 150 miles of range, which is roughly 40 percent more than the previous model. The Leaf is also equipped with Nissan's ProPilot system that allows for autonomous parking and highway driving, as well as an “e-Pedal" -- a single pedal that can handle both accelerating and braking.

Because of these features, the next-gen Nissan Leaf was won the CES 2018 Best of Innovation award, specifically for its autonomous driving capability, and was a CES Honoree for Tech for a Better World. The 2018 Leaf is currently in production and coming to the U.S. early this year with a starting price of just $29,990 before incentives.

In Europe, the 2018 Leaf surpassed 10,000 preorders in under two months through Nissan’s online ordering system.

As part of its electrification plan, Nissan is also working on vehicle-to-grid technology, which allows for the bidirectional flow of power from the EV to a home and from a home back into the EV battery. Nissan’s residential battery pack, xStorage, manages the power exchange, enabling homeowners to charge up or discharge when electricity prices are low or to perform a grid service.  

As of last October, more than 1,000 units had already been sold across Europe, with 5,000 units expected to sell by the end of March 2018. Nissan has a goal to sell 100,000 home energy units in Europe by the end of 2020.

Battle of the airwaves vs. the battle on the ground

In the race to own the future of low-carbon, connected and autonomous mobility, the Nissan-Renault-Mitsubishi strategy is to build on what has worked in the past, rather than reinvent the wheel.

Basically, the Alliance doesn’t want to get out ahead of itself. The next six years will see cars come to market with all levels of autonomy, said Ghosn, but “we have to be very prudent about the introduction of this technology.” At the end of the day, the mass-market adoption of autonomous cars “depends on what price you’re asking for and if the consumer is ready to pay.”

The Alliance is taking a similarly cautious approach to new business models. Nissan is testing out self-driving taxis, but it’s not trying to be a “mobility services company,” said Ghosn. Rather, “we’ll continue to do business as usual,” which means selling lots of cars, especially in emerging markets like China.

“You have the battle of the airwaves, where everyone is making statements. And then you have the battle on the ground," said Ghosn. “The battle on the ground is who is selling what at what level.”

“There are a lot of statements, a lot of declarations, and a lot of delays -- particularly on electric cars,” he said. “So it’s very difficult to tell [whether] you are late or in advance. What we can tell you is the facts…and for the moment, on autonomous drive, we’re in pretty good shape. And on electric drive, we’re in pretty good shape.”

The three-member Alliance already spends around $10.1 billion on research and development each year. 

The challenge now is about how the Alliance equips itself for the future; it’s about knowing what each brand needs and picking the right partners and technologies, said Ghosn. And that’s where the new venture capital fund comes in.

A priority for Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi is to ensure Alliance Ventures lives up to its potential, and doesn't get bogged down with the cumbersome bureaucracy that large, established companies can develop over time. The fund is meant to be a fast-moving and responsive “one-stop shop” for startups looking to partner with Alliance members.

“We have great intentions," said Ghosn. "Now we just want to be sure that our reality sticks."