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Keno Kato: The GT-R is "a symbol of our technical capability."

‘Supercars’ and character are critical in the autonomous future

At the recent New York auto show, Automotive Engineering spoke with Keno Kato, Nissan’s corporate Vice President for Global Product Strategy & Product Planning. Kato, an enthusiast of mobility in just about any form, was in town to support Nissan’s unveiling of the heavily revised 2017 GT-R supercar. He spoke of the GT-R’s pivotal role in Nissan’s product-development “ethic,” his reverence for American musclecars and the seemingly conflicting needs for both commonization and character in the autonomous-driving future.

Everyone knows the GT-R is a halo car. But the GT-R almost transcends that description in your home market, doesn’t it?

I raised the question about this car to check awareness. Nearly 100% of people know it; awareness is unbelievable. For my generation – and a bit younger as well as much older – this (GT-R) brand is significant. Maybe like Corvette in the U.S. This is truly the icon of high-performance (in Japan) for my generation. For the future, we have to continue to demonstrate our technology and our performance thru this brand.

History made this situation. We cannot stop (making the GT-R): emissions, fuel economy (regulations), there is no excuse. For the consumer waiting for the GT-R, there is zero excuse – we have to find a solution (to continue making the GT-R regardless of future regulatory and development trends mitigating against high-performance vehicles).

So one way you see the GT-R is as a demonstration of Nissan’s ability to solve problems?

It’s a symbol of our technical capability. Plus, respect for the customer. If we start to make excuses, that’s really bad. (Our ability to cope) with any new requirement, regulation, anything – that message is very important.

Respect for the customer sometimes gets lost in all this. We seldom hear about the business of developing vehicles, even renowned models, expressed that way.

That’s a massive “good stress” for me. My role is to “sell” the vision – not only one car, but to the people at the corporate level as an ethic, that we have to show respect to the car guys. I love American car guys – (they’re) so deep. I’m a visitor from Japan to the real, real, genuine car country (the U.S.). I have to show my respect.

What does this mean when the talk almost every day is about how cars are going to drive us? Will there always be a place for a GT-R? Will someday even a GT-R be autonomous?

There’s zero ‘mismatch’ (between performance cars and autonomous technology). There’s an easy example: in the city, in traffic, the driver can reduce effort. After leaving the city and getting to the destination, say the racetrack, the driver resumes control. This is quite a straightforward story for even the GT-R — or any car: reduce effort for the driver in unfavorable traffic situations. That’s most valuable. I’ve tested an (autonomous) prototype, by the way, and I was excited. I am a car guy and I was excited by the thought of the autonomous technology.

You think there is good potential, then, to meld the aspects of performance and autonomous? That the two worlds are not mutually exclusive?

Making the decision to use autonomous technology for the GT-R would (actually) help a lot. Why? Because performance cars have no space, (autonomous hardware) is heavy, system response (is critical) – putting that technology in any performance car is helpful (to speed development for mainstream models). Packaging is really the key.

As Nissan moves forward with technology decisions for the near- and mid-term, what is the next “cycle” that you see, given projections for several years of cheap global oil and that customers in many regions are choosing large vehicles again?

I don’t mind the fuel price so much, because global warming is a much more significant issue. Gas prices are just kind of a lever to control the speed of introduction or implementation (of efficiency-enhancing technology). The speed of implementation might be controlled by gas prices, but fundamentally, the direction stays the same. Globally, the direction of technology is getting more similar.

The only difference remains in infrastructure. That’s very different by market. But fuel efficiency, global warming and the requirements — including safety, including “connected” — they’re the same. In India, the U.S., Japan, Korea, we did a survey to understand customer expectations. They’re the same. That’s my view.

What about “connected” vehicles and the user experience? You’ve mentioned that many aspects of advanced-driving technology should be the same, perhaps even set by regulation.

To provide the right answer for the customer, there will be massive commonization in (non-critical) areas. The customer is waiting for that. Like autonomous driving: in traffic, less effort. Then on track day, let’s enjoy (each model’s individual character and control feedback). The complicating differences by car manufacturers have to be removed. Then let’s enjoy the (interesting) differences.

Are you confident there will be that sort of uniformity in the future vehicle’s user experience?

For some areas. Unfortunately, since it's driven by car manufacturers – there’s no stronger power to control it, no leadership. But I shouldn’t say that! (laughs). There have already been some examples of commonization, such as charging infrastructure, to remove effort for the customer.

I’m a big fan of American “muscle” cars. They shared engines, they shared frames, they shared everything – except (body) style. “Fast N’ Loud,” “Overhaulin’” – I love those American TV programs. And Chip Foose is great. Okay: (it’s mostly about) beautiful design. I’m always thinking about the appeal of those vehicles: sometimes it’s very subtle differences. But still, people enjoy that difference, rather than, ‘no, no, no, the lever has to be here.’

And nicknames for each engine. So lovely. People – not only Americans, by the way – love a simple differentiation. Wheelbase is the same, engine is the same. Same, same, same – but with a different style.

Back to the GT-R. There are a lot of hybrid supercars now. How do you feel about electrification for supercars?

I cannot speak about the future GT-R plan. But observing the competition and other similar vehicles, it seems to me to be quite a normal solution to meet requirements. Very natural and normal. Or – there may be other ways. Aerodynamics, or…

What about the accelerating pace of electrification for mainstream vehicles?

It is the future, no question. (An EV) is fun to drive. And if we don’t have to go to the gas station – oh, wow! (laughs)

I have a 2-stroke motorcycle. Smoke. The combustion is not so efficient. But I don’t want to sell this lovely 2-stroke motorcycle. To compensate (for occasionally using it), maybe I should own an EV. For daily commuting, the EV is very good (for society).

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