Weekly Brief: International Fugitive Carlos Ghosn Steals Auto Spotlight From CES 2020

Former Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn became an international fugitive last week when he fled his home in Japan in the middle of the night.

Ghosn was arrested by Japanese authorities in 2018 on charges of financial misconduct and was on house arrest but somehow managed to evade surveillance. The details are as murky as they are audacious. One version of the escape states that Ghosn had musicians over to his house on the night of December 29 and snuck out in one of their large musical instrument cases. Another report suggests that an American former Green Beret whisked Ghosn onto a private charter jet out of Osaka headed for Istanbul. One way or another, Ghosn eventually ended up in Lebanon where he is a citizen. The Lebanese authorities say that he entered legally with a French passport. Japanese authorities have demanded Ghosn’s return. Lebanon has no extradition treaty with Japan, and its authorities say they have no intention of complying with Japan’s request.

The story has rocked an auto industry that typically avoids splashy or scandalous headlines. Tesla’s Elon Musk is an outlier. Even his most boisterous moments pale in comparison to Ghosn’s escape, which reads like a Hollywood script. Upon landing in Lebanon, Ghosn issued a statement that called Japan’s criminal justice system “rigged.” “[G]uilt is presumed, discrimination is rampant, and basic human rights are denied, in flagrant disregard of Japan’s legal obligations under international law and treaties it is bound to uphold.” Whether or not Ghosn committed financial fraud, it’s true that Japan’s criminal justice system is authoritarian and leaves those accused of crimes little chance of being found not guilty. Ghosn has promised to hold a press conference in the coming days in Beirut. Rumor has it that in addition to arguing his innocence, he plans to produce damning accusations of several senior members of Japanese society.

This story is far from over. Nissan thus has little chance of controlling its own narrative for the foreseeable future, especially this week at CES 2020, where the automaker had hoped to capture the audience’s imagination with an all-electric ice-cream van that has a solar panel on its roof to charge up its battery while it’s on the move. A host of other Nissan EVs will be on hand as well, from its LEAF e+ to its zero-emission Ariya Concept to its new Formula E race car. Ironically, a big reason that Nissan is a leader in alternative vehicle technologies is that Ghosn championed them. He was a vocal advocate for the mobility revolution and believed that the future of the automobile was “an electric car, connected and autonomous.”

Nissan will have company at CES 2020.The trade show may have begun as a mecca for consumer electronics, but in recent years it has morphed into one of the most important auto shows of the year as carmakers attempt to align their brands with concepts of mobility and connectivity. No surprise then that Hyundai will unveil a flying car concept and a flying cargo van, both of which are part of what Hyundai is calling a “future personal mobility ecosystem.” Honda will show off a self-driving car with no pedals and a reimagined steering wheel that allows passengers to passively control the vehicle’s speed, direction and other activities.

We’ll be back next week with a full lowdown on the event in Las Vegas, plus any fireworks from Carlos Ghosn in Beirut.

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