Renault, Nissan and Mitsubishi, on their own, aren’t among the top handful of the world’s auto manufacturers. Together, in a unique alliance, however, they outmatch the sales of giant automakers like Volkswagen.
But the happy confederation has been threatened since its leader, Carlos Ghosn, was arrested on suspicion of financial wrongdoing. He’s no longer in power, and sits in a Tokyo jail cell.
Mr. Ghosn personified the alliance, drawing together disparate auto cultures by the force of his personality. Can it survive without him?
What has happened since Mr. Ghosn was arrested?
A leadership vacuum has opened since Mr. Ghosn’s arrest. Without their longtime leader, Renault and Nissan have blamed each other for trying to tip the balance of power.
The French government, which holds a 15 percent stake in Renault, has weighed in with concerns that Nissan is maneuvering to prevent Renault from participating in the alliance’s decision-making.
Mr. Ghosn and Greg Kelly, an aide who was also arrested, occupied seats on the Nissan board. But Nissan had declined a request to hold an immediate shareholder meeting, meaning the French carmaker cannot replace its representatives there. (On Thursday, Nissan said a meeting would be held in April.)
How does the auto alliance work?
The grouping gives the three companies scale, allowing them to operate as one large group with sales that dwarf those of other carmakers. The alliance sold 10.6 million cars in 2017, compared with the 10.1 million sold by Volkswagen and under nine million vehicles by Toyota.
Renault and Nissan teamed up in 1999 to share purchasing and design expertise. They acted as one entity with Mr. Ghosn at the helm, but did not formally merge.
Mitsubishi joined in 2016, and the alliance has worked with the German carmaker Daimler on projects like the Mercedes-Benz pickup truck and the production of compact cars.
Renault owns a 43 percent stake in Nissan, while Nissan has a 15 percent share in Renault without voting rights.
Is it one big happy family?
Renault exercised more power than the other carmakers in the alliance, but Nissan sold more cars. The situation stirred resentment on the Nissan side. The Japanese carmaker saw Renault as unfairly piggybacking on Nissan’s technology, research and brand.
Renault, for its part, accused Mr. Ghosn of favoring the Japanese and Nissan, and blocking the French manufacturer’s expansion into China, the world’s largest car market, to help Nissan.
Mr. Ghosn was trying to push Renault and Nissan to cooperate further, proposing to save $5.7 billion with more coordinated design and manufacturing. His plan involved having all vehicles produced by the automakers be based on four combinations of chassis, engines and transmissions.
Do other companies have such alliances?
The Nissan-Renault alliance was seen as innovative early on. But now the auto industry is facing technological disruption. Companies are realizing that joining forces with rivals may be the only way to compete and cut costs in developing electric and autonomous cars.
Ford and Volkswagen announced an alliance this month to speed the development of electric and self-driving cars.
Until recently, Fiat Chrysler (itself the result of a merger of carmakers that dates to 2014) has been upfront about its desire to merge with another big carmaker. It has been working with BMW since 2017 to develop self-driving cars.
Daimler and BMW have merged their car-sharing businesses to compete with the efforts of companies like Uber and Alphabet, Google’s parent company. And a number of car companies have working with technology companies, such as Volvo, which provided the chassis for driverless car tests by Uber.
Who will replace Carlos Ghosn?
Nissan quickly dumped him as head of its board. Renault had been waiting for Mr. Ghosn to be released on bail — but court decisions have kept him jailed in Japan, and the French carmaker has decided to move on.
Jean-Dominique Senard, the chief executive of the French tire maker Michelin and a veteran businessman, was named chairman of Renault. Thierry Bolloré, Renault’s chief operating officer, was named chief executive.
Renault said it planned to supervise the “functioning of the alliance,” but it is unclear whether anyone can fill Mr. Ghosn’s role as its head.
The partnership is considered essential to the success of these automakers. Industry experts believe the carmakers are in desperate need of a strong leader. The companies in the partnership are facing falling demand in the world’s biggest markets — China, the United States and Europe — and rising challenges with the emergence of electric cars. And they are grappling with the effect of a trade war on their supply chains.
Ollivier Lemal, the managing director in France for EIM, a management consulting firm, said the group needed “someone who is going to devote all his time and energy to restore dialogue between the manufacturers.”