Beyond the Coasts: Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi’s Waymo Deal Another Nudge Toward the Exit for Nissan?

The global automotive industry – and the world of global corporations – was shaken when Carlos Ghosn, Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi’s (“RNM”) CEO, was arrested by Japanese authorities for alleged multiple counts of financial misconduct at the end of November 2018. For those who had been following developments inside the RNM “alliance,” this apparently sudden crackdown came as no surprise. Irrespective of the substance of the claims against Ghosn (and it is reasonable to believe that they are at least in part substantiated) the story of Ghosn downfall is a long one, told in long form in a recent Bloomberg piece.

One part of that story is the rise of Nissan, early on relegated to second fiddle in the Alliance’s grand scheme of things, and the relative stagnation of Renault since. If the former needed rescue at the time of the setup of the Alliance in 1999, facts on the ground have changed: Nissan’s market homerun with its all-electric, consumer-accessible Leaf, secured the Japanese car-maker a comfortable position. To say the least, these facts have not always been quite reflected in the corporate structure and decision-making practices at the Alliance level. Increasingly, the overbearing role of the French state, the largest (by a hair’s width) shareholder of Renault came about as an irritant to the Japanese partner. As reported by the French investigative weekly Le Canard Enchaîné of November 28, 2018,Ghosn was the keystone of the formal – and informal – corporate governance entente throughout the Alliance itself, and both Renault and Nissan individually, with executive or board positions in all three entities.Where Ghosn once stood alone now stands three different persons and the Japanese car-maker’s economic domination over its former French rescuer is just made more apparent. While French media were quick to point out that the nomination of Jean-Dominique Senard to be the head of Renault (and eventually Nissan, and eventually the Alliance itself) would bring everything back to normal, the Financial Times reported on February 19, 2019 that Nissan would oppose his nomination as CEO of the Japanese carmaker, thereby disavowing the old governance model.

In parallel to this corporate drama, as of February 2019, the Alliance is allegedly negotiating a deal with Alphabet’s Waymo that would have them build “robotaxis” and develop the spanning software infrastructure that mandatorily comes with such a project. Now, most of the press seems to think that a Waymo deal would bring some energy to revive the alliance after a hard hit. The revelations about the deal came with the usual disclaimers: an Alliance spokesman termed all this mere “speculation” and Waymo, well, Waymo draped itself in its usual ominous silence.

Could Waymo end up changing its mind about the whole thing following the deepening crisis rocking the Alliance? Us mere ill-informed mortals can only speculate about what Waymo does or what Waymo wants, and if a mature deal is not something to be ditched on a whim, it might make sense to keep the whole thing closer to Nissan than to Renault, and most of all steer clear from Eurasian transnational corporate politics. Rather than reviving the Alliance, the Waymo deal might just be an opportunity to ditch it. Interestingly enough, the original February 5th, 2019 report by Nikkei on the deal clearly states that it would involve the deployment of mobility-as-a-service (MaaS) infrastructure in Japan with cars made by Nissan (and maybe, made in Japan too?) Moreover, Renault’s stance in the CAV is not quite clear. It’s much hyped (at least judging by the awed French journalists) Symbioz – a level 3 CAV – is now nowhere to be seen. If I were Nissan and Waymo, I might just be going non merci on Renault for this time around.