Nissan invests in production to prepare for electric age

Nissan Leaf.
Nissan Leaf.

Yuri Kageyama

Yokohama, Japan (AP) — Nissan is investing 33 billion yen ($303 million) in its flagship auto plant in Japan’s Tochigi prefecture in a first rollout of a production system geared toward electric vehicles.

Nissan Motor Co. Executive Vice President Hideyuki Sakamoto said Thursday that manufacturing methods must change because vehicles increasingly have both hybrid and electric engines and new parts for connectivity and artificial intelligence services.

Sakamoto said the production changes, set to be completed next year, use robotics and sensors to decrease physical stress on assembly-line workers. They are tailored for a workforce increasingly manned by senior workers and women.

Among the innovations for Nissan’s so-called “intelligent factory” is a powertrain mounting system that allows at least 27 configurations to be installed in one procedure.

The parts, including the battery for electric vehicles, are put together on one “pallet,” or foundation unit, for easier installing into the vehicle.

Another innovation involves programming a worker’s craftsmanship into robotics. The moves are so finely tuned in the automated sealing process that the delicate angles and touches of a human worker are duplicated.

The advantage to such a system is that a robot’s work is consistent and tireless, maintaining the quality of craftsmanship, according to Nissan.

“The competitiveness of an automaker lies in production, as well as design and technology development,” Sakamoto told reporters.

Auto production methods have remained basically the same since the early 1900s. But vehicles are becoming more complex, as driver-support technology, hybrid systems and various kinds of batteries must be fitted in, depending on the vehicle, Sakamoto said.

The production methods will be later rolled out in Nissan’s plants in Japan and elsewhere around the world but details are undecided.

Yokohama-based Nissan, which makes the Leaf electric car, March subcompact and Infiniti luxury models, is eager to relay a message of innovation as it battles a serious risk to its reputation amid plunging profits and sales.

Nissan’s former Chairman Carlos Ghosn is awaiting trial on various financial misconduct allegations. Nissan has acknowledged failings in its corporate governance.

Its new chief executive is taking office next week. Ghosn’s successor Hiroto Saikawa also stepped down, acknowledging financial misconduct.

All other major global automakers are working on smart, connected and electric vehicles. But Nissan has a head start in many of the innovations, especially electric vehicles, thanks largely to Ghosn.

Ghosn says he is innocent and accuses others in Nissan of colluding to get rid of him to block a fuller integration with its alliance partner Renault SA of France.


Hamilton to Ferrari?

Jerome Pugmire

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Six-time Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton appeared to open the door for a possible future move to Ferrari when he refused to deny meeting with its chairman John Elkann.

Italian newspaper La Gazzetta dello Sport reported Saturday that the Mercedes driver has met Elkann twice this year, and that they discussed Hamilton potentially replacing Sebastian Vettel at Ferrari from 2021 onward.

Both four-time champion Vettel and Hamilton have yet to renew contracts expiring at the end of 2020.

Lewis Hamilton.
Lewis Hamilton.

Hamilton was asked after winning Sunday’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix — the 11th win of another dominant season and 84th overall — if he did meet Elkann.

“Naturally, everything that happens behind closed doors is always private with whoever it is you end up sitting with,” Hamilton said. “For many years, I’ve never ever sat down and considered other options, because we (Mercedes) have been driving straight ahead, on the same path. We’re still on that path, and there’s very little that’s going to shift it.”

Hamilton started to add “But there’s no harm in …” before saying “I know (Mercedes team principal) Toto (Wolff) is also looking at his options, in terms of his future, and only he will know what is best for him.”

Hamilton’s stint at Mercedes has brought the Silver Arrows unprecedented success.

Under the stewardship of Wolff, he has won five world titles to add to his first with former team McLaren in 2008. But Wolff’s future is also undecided, amid reports he could possibly move into another role within Formula One.

“I love where I am, so it’s definitely not a quick decision to go and do something else,” Hamilton said. “But it’s only smart and wise for me to think about what I want, if it is the last stage of my career.”

Ferrari’s team principal Mattia Binotto called Hamilton “an outstanding driver” on Friday and tantalizingly added “knowing that he’s available in 2021 can make us only happy.”

“I think it’s the first compliment I’ve had from Ferrari in 13 years … Thank you. I’ll take it,” Hamilton said Saturday after clinching a record-extending 88th pole position. “It’s taken all these years for them to recognize me. I’m grateful … It’s positive. I think it’s never a waste of time to ever be nice to someone.”

The 34-year-old British driver added: “(Ferrari is) a team I’ve always appreciated. To earn the respect from them is obviously very high up.”

Wolff was asked after Sunday’s race how he rates Hamilton’s chances of staying.

“I would rate it at 75 percent,” he said. “There is a 25 percent chance that we are not in control of. So we’ll see how the next months pan out.”

Wolff has not yet begun talks with Hamilton over a new contract, although previous negotiations were also kept fairly low-key and casual.

“We haven’t given ourselves a date,” Wolff said. “Come back at the end of January, February, define a schedule on when we want to discuss it.”

Wolff experienced uncertainty before when Nico Rosberg stunned Mercedes by retiring from F1 after beating Hamilton to the 2016 title.

“When Nico decided to quit, my initial reaction was actually the opportunity provided to us, and I think the choice with Valtteri (Bottas) proved to be the right choice,” Wolff said. “So I still very much hope that our relationship continues. But I’m not entirely in control of that. If one important member breaks out, that certainly provides risk and opportunity at the same time.”

Hamilton reportedly earns more than $50 million a year at Mercedes. But Ferrari might be prepared to beat that, especially since the Italian manufacturer has not won the drivers’ title since Kimi Raikkonen in 2007 and the constructors’ title in 2006.

Wolff said he and Hamilton have “talked very openly” about Ferrari’s grand stature within F1, and he understands the temptation for Hamilton to end his outstanding career in the famed red of Ferrari.

“There will be components such as financial incentives that will play a role … I still think a driver of that level will always know that he can make an impact on a team,” Wolff said. “When he left McLaren to Mercedes, it was said that it wasn’t the right move, and it proved to be right (move). So I don’t think I want to make a mistake of underestimating Ferrari’s potential.”


Have the American owners made for a better spectacle?

With Americans now owning the once noble sport of F1, we expected some changes to spice up the Grands Prix. One failure was the MC introducing the drivers a la boxing at Madison Square Garden, for example “Looowisss Hamilto-o-o-on”.

But that is just the start. Liberty Media (AKA the owners) will be introducing more sizzle, but without the sausages because they can cost money. The grid girls were scrapped and we didn’t even get a bunch of the cheerleaders in exchange, with the short skirts and pom-poms as eye candy, all to provide a better “show” for the spectators. Instead we had grid kids which hasn’t worked, so let’s try something else. We have to face the fact that F1 is no longer a sporting competition, it is a “show”, complete with purple pom-poms (or green ones for British drivers and silver for Germans). And have you noticed, the grid girls are reappearing because the circuits want them?

Bring back the grid girls.
Bring back the grid girls.

As the spectator numbers for F1 have fallen, the bikes are taking over. MotoGP is on the ascendancy. And it is easy to see why. There are 20 riders putting their life on the line in a harsh environment. People know them by name and number, Valentino Rossi number 46, Marc Marquez number 93. They are within the distance for gloves to be thrown, and become treasured keep-sakes for young boys, the next wave of dedicated spectators.

What does F1 do? Makes the drivers untouchable, imagining that they are thought of as gods. Sorry, but they have clay feet. The spectators will go to MotoGP. Sorry, not “will go” – they are already going.

Back in the days when JC played for Bethlehem United, I signed my first motor racing contract. In that document was the proviso that after each race, I was to wait with the car in the pits for 30 minutes to answer questions and sign autographs.

OK, so it wasn’t F1, but it was motor racing such as that when 40,000 people set off to watch cars competing at Oran Park they were told on the radio to turn round as the traffic tail back was just too long. Motor racing was very popular – way back then. Can those days be recreated? I believe it would be possible, but it won’t happen. The step backward is just too great. Television and advertising rule the roost. The FIA has let all this happen (don’t blame Bernie), far too preoccupied with stewards penalties and grid spots if you change your engine, and avoiding the real problems.

Red Bull’s Verstappen and Ferrari’s Leclerc are very ‘marketable’ items but the environment they race in is too restrictive to hold the attention of the spectators. We need some more gladiators, and maybe a pride of lions? Or just bring back the grid girls.