Innovative Nissan Gears Up for Growth

Nissan Motor Co. (OTC: NSANY) is embracing the high-tech future of the automobile, while at the same time reaching into its past to better compete in emerging markets.

First, the future: last week, Nissan announced that it plans to start selling multiple models of driverless cars by 2020. The company feels its Autonomous Drive system cut down on accidents and let drivers make better use of their time. These are obvious pluses in light of the fact that about 30,000 Americans die in car crashes annually, and the average U.S. commute is 25.5 minutes one-way, or nearly an hour return.

“Frustrating and unproductive commutes could be a thing of the past,” said Nissan executive vice-president Andy Palmer in an August 27 Bloomberg article.

The idea of driverless automobiles is not new, nor is Nissan the only company in the field. Google (NasdaqGS: GOOG) is also developing self-driving technology, though Nissan claims that its system stands out because all the necessary data is generated onboard the car itself, as opposed to relying on external technology.

However, Nissan feels its system’s low cost is what really gives it the upper hand: the company envisions self-driving capability as an optional add-on that would increase the sticker price of a luxury sedan by just $1,000.

Electric Car Gains Bode Well for Self-Driving Technology

The company is no stranger to developing innovative new technologies. Its Nissan Leaf compact, for example, is now the leader in the electric car segment. Through the first seven months of 2013, Leaf sales are up 371.9% in the U.S. from the same period in 2012. In July, Nissan sold 1,864 Leafs compared to its closest competitor, General Motors’ (NYSE: GM) Chevrolet Volt, at 1,788.

In all, the company has sold 11,703 Leafs so far this year, helped in part by a $6,400 price cut in January, to $28,800, after it moved Leaf production to its factory in Tennessee from Japan. The company may now be poised to increase Leaf output in Tennessee by a third to meet the higher demand, according to Automotive News.

While growing, the Leaf sales numbers are obviously small compared to the 1.32 million total vehicles sold in the country in July, but demand for electric cars continues to steadily rise. As we reported in April, U.S. drivers snapped up approximately 53,000 electric vehicles in 2012, roughly triple the number they did in 2011. Moreover, according to a January report from Pike Research, 1.8 million plug-in electrics will be sold in America’s 102 largest cities between 2012 and 2020.

Nissan is well positioned to benefit from the segment’s continuing growth: according to research from, the company controls the largest share of the electric car market in the U.S., at 45.7%, with GM in the No. 2 spot at 42.0%. The rest of the competition, including Ford Motor Company (NYSE: F), Honda (NYSE: HMC) and Tesla Motors (NasdaqGS: TSLA), are scrapping for the remaining 12.3%.

Taking Abenomics to the Bank

Nissan, like other Japanese carmakers, is also benefiting from recent government moves to revitalize the economy, which have lowered the value of the yen. Right now, the currency is trading at around 100 yen to the U.S. dollar, down about 20% in the past 11 months.

“This is an exchange sweet spot for Japan’s major exporters, whose products are now cheaper for foreign buyers and whose domestic sales will pick up along with the economy,” wrote Investing Daily analyst Benjamin Shepherd in a June 17 article in our Benjamin Shepherd’s Wall Street newsletter.

The country’s Liberal Democratic Party, under prime minister Shinzo Abe, along with a smaller coalition partner, won a landslide victory in parliamentary elections in July. Abe has been focused on pulling Japan out of a 15-year deflationary spiral with his three-part economic strategy, dubbed “Abenomics.”

Since he returned to office in December, Abe has brought in a $142-billion stimulus package to create jobs and update infrastructure, and the Bank of Japan has launched massive monetary stimulus aimed at doubling the money supply by the end of 2014.

The Japanese economy posted a stronger-than-expected annualized 3.5% growth rate in the first quarter, though its 2.6% expansion fell short of expectations in the second quarter. Still, Philip Springer, chief investment strategist at our Personal Finance newsletter, sees better days ahead for the country, underscored by Abe’s victory, which should bring political stability after the country went through six prime ministers in six years.

“The bottom line is that Japan is undergoing significant positive change from an investment standpoint, as hard as it may be to believe considering some 30 years of decline or stagnation,” he wrote in a July 29 Investing Daily article.

North American Gains, Weaker Yen Boost Earnings

The lower yen played a significant role in Nissan’s latest quarterly results.

In the first quarter of its 2013 fiscal year, which ended June 30, 2013, the company’s sales rose 17.8%, to 2.23 trillion yen from 1.895 trillion yen a year ago.

Nissan continues to see strength in the U.S., where sales volumes surged 20% from a year ago as the company took advantage of the weaker yen to offer aggressive promotions overseas in order to grab market share. It also saw strong sales of its Altima sedan and Pathfinder SUV.

That offset declines in its other markets, particularly China, which remains a weak spot after consumers there boycotted Japanese carmakers’ showrooms after the two countries clashed in a dispute involving sovereignty over a chain of islands in the South China Sea last year. As a result, Nissan’s sales volumes dropped 15.1% in China in the latest quarter.

Net income came in at 82.0 billion yen, or 19.57 yen per share, up 14.0% from 72.0 billion yen, or 17.17 yen per share, a year earlier. That easily topped the 74.9 billion yen that analysts were forecasting. Operating income rose 23%.

Pulling Datsun Out of the Garage

The self-driving car announcement marks the continuation of a busy summer for the company. In July, it revealed plans to relaunch the Datsun brand, starting with four new models next year. The company phased out the label in 1981, preferring instead to focus on the Nissan banner.

However, you won’t be able to revisit the 1970s behind the wheel of a new Datsun in the U.S. The company is aiming the cars squarely at emerging markets, where they’ll compete in the low-cost compact car space. That seems like a good fit, because the Datsun label is still recognized for its reliability, and its previous iteration was known as a fuel-efficient car in another time of high fuel prices.

The company recently unveiled the Datsun Go, which will be aimed at first-time car buyers in India. The Go will be able to seat five and will sport a fuel-sipping 1.2-liter engine. It will sell for about 400,000 rupees, or about $6,670 U.S.

The low price will mean slim profit margins for Nissan. Moreover, the slowing Indian economy weakened car sales by 10% in the latest quarter. However, the move should help the company win over India’s large number of young drivers without affecting the perceived quality of its other banners, such as Nissan and Infiniti.

The company’s plans for Datsun go beyond India: it will also sell cars under the banner in Indonesia, Russia and South Africa. Other markets, including additional African nations and Central and Latin America, could be added by 2016.