CAR interviews Renault’s electric car chief Thierry Koskas (2011)

Published: 24 March 2011

CAR recently had dinner with the head of Renault’s electric car programme, Thierry Koskas. We grilled him on the finer points of Renault’s ambitious EV plans, asked him how on earth Renault will make money on it and probed him for the truth on the espionage scandal. Read on for our interview with Renault’s EV boss.

CAR: You’ve just priced the Renault Twizy at €6990. Are you actually going to make any money on these new electric Renaults?

Thierry Koskas: ‘Of course we are. We will make money on the Twizy. We’ve priced it €300 below the popular Piaggio rival.’

Who’ll buy the Twizy? It’s quite a radical departure…

‘There are two targets for the Twizy. The first camp will have several cars already and will be early adopters. They will buy it because it’s a fun car. The kids will love it. The second group will be bikers wanting more protection.’

Will Nissan build a Twizy like their concept?

‘There’s no reason the Twizy should stay in Europe only. Nissan is much stronger than us in certain markets such as Asia... No decision has been made yet but we are testing the concept of a Nissan one. That said, we are making sure there is barely any overlap between Nissan’s and Renault’s EVs.’

So how do Renault and Nissan decide who’ll do which EVs?

‘It was decided that Renault would be first with a full line-up. That’s why we have four electric cars and Nissan has one. The Fluence ZE was designed specifically for the Israeli market. The Kangoo EV was for the French Post Office. We wanted the Zoe as a volume car. The Twizy came out of Renault engineers’ imagination – it was a back room project that came to the attention of the bosses.’

How on earth are you going to make 10% of your sales EVs by 2020?

‘We currently sell 2.6 million cars a year, but have plans for 3 million. That means we must sell 300,000 electric cars by 2020. This will happen. There’s one French supermarket chain that is taking 50 EVs in 2011, then 100 in 2012 and 500 by 2015. We can plan ahead quite easily in many regards. And consider the Better Place scheme in Israel: they will take 100,000 EVs from us over five years.’

That’s a lot of electric cars. Are they getting a massive fleet discount?

‘They are buying the cars from us. When you buy 100,000 cars, you get a better discount than if you buy one car!’

How close are you to agreeing standard charging points among different manufacturers and markets?

‘On the car side, there is little agreement. But that’s not a problem – it’s like having different chargers for your iPhone or Blackberry. You just pack a different cable with the car. Nobody cares. On the wall side we hope to have one single plug shape. The Germans started with one shape, then the French came with another shape. There are many problems with this and the electrical safety regulations are not European. Sadly we will probably start with two different shape plugs for Europe. But how many EVs will drive across borders? Not many. You will just charge up with the plug provided which will work in your country.’

What about the much-mooted quick-drop system of swapping batteries in a garage while you wait?

‘Sadly there has been little interest in this. Buying petrol is all about buying a sandwich – that’s how they make their money. The petrol retailers were not that interested in quick-drop because they could not sell you a sandwich.’

What’s happening with the Daimler cooperation? Are you developing electric cars together?

‘We have already announced the next Smart and Twingo are being twinned. There will be an electric version of each. Those are the only two confirmed – everything else we are still talking about.’

And the EV espionage case? It’s fascinating to watch this unfold…

‘We are not allowed to say anything about that. From my point of view, it’s had no effect on the way we are running the project. There’s no delay on the cars.’

Tell us about the range of Renault’s first-generation EVs. They’re currently limited to around 100 miles. How long before we see a 200-mile range in production electric cars?

‘We are 10 years away from a 200-mile range in electric cars, I’d say. We think lithium ion technology will improve, but we are also looking at totally different technology.’

Which rivals do you worry about?

‘The Chinese are pushing very hard on electric vehicles. But we appear to have an advantage at first and will benefit from being first to market with our range of full production EVs. We are not the absolute first – Mitsubishi have the i-MIEV for instance – but we want to be first with a full range of affordable EVs. We want people to associate EVs with Renault, as people associate hybrids with Toyota.’

Is Carlos Ghosn betting the farm on EVs?

‘That 10% target by 2020 is not guesswork. We have studied the market very hard. Just look at oil prices which are very unlikely to drop below $100 again. People say “where’s the infrastructure?” but we say most users will recharge at home where you don’t need public charging points. And in France, any new building must be pre-wired for charging points for cars.’

What sounds will Renault’s electric cars make?

‘We find that girls want little bird noises, while the guys want a V8 rumble! We have looked into the solution and settled on two or three noises we’ll offer. From 0-30kmh the car will play an MP3 file – after that the road noise is sufficient to warn pedestrians an EV is approaching. One sound is like a turbine, but in theory it could play the Marseilleise! We’ll see.’

Some countries will support EVs with tax credits and such like. Where will your biggest markets be?

‘We reckon France will be number one; this is a French company and the government and private sector will support us. But we think the UK will be number two for us. That’s based on the size of the new car market, the price incentives on offer and the infrastructure being prepared.’

Tell us about the battery life of electric Renaults. Will they really last?

‘Each battery should last 8-10 years in the car. If after four years you sell the car, the new owner takes on the car and the lease for the battery. You won’t own it, so if there’s a problem it’s just swapped. It doesn’t matter how you charge the battery, whether you do it from empty or top up from half full. The only thing that reduces the life of the battery is too many quick charges. But most buyers will start with full charge at the start of each day and won’t need to quick charge; trials in Italy with the Kangoo ZE suggest they quickly learned to trust the battery and only charged it every three days in typical usage.’

What EVs can we expect from Renault next? Carlos Ghosn has said that Renault-Nissan will have 1.5 million electric cars on the road by 2016 and that Renault will offer 48 model ranges by 2016, compared with 40 today…

‘True, but I will not tell you how many of those will be EV. It’s somewhere between four and 48! I can say that not every market segment will have an EV. But we will continue to drive the price down. From 2013 we will make our own electric motors – they will be much cheaper than today’s.’

What does all this mean to a car enthusiast? EVs will become very similar and lack some of the visceral thrills petrolheads love about cars. It strikes me as a very unemotional purchase

‘True, it won’t be about engine noises and the character of cars will change. Instead buyers will look at the real-life range on offer, the prices, the services, and the design. When you see the real Zoe, you will be impressed. And EVs have plenty of hidden attractions. We will have the same servicing intervals as a petrol or diesel car, but the cost will be lower because there’s no oil to change and fewer moving parts. If you drive over 8000 miles a year, you will save money compared with a Clio owner.’

And will we see Renaultsport versions? At launch it all seems to be about clean emissions, but surely you can tune battery power delivery and electric motors to deliver performance too?

‘On the Twizy there will be two versions with different power outputs, so yes we can do that. Full sports versions? If there are enough buyers who want them, we will build them.’

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By Tim Pollard

Editorial director of CAR's digital publishing arm. Motoring news magnet