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More Implausible Than Le Carre: Renault's Electric-Car Espionage Case

A Hollywood spy thriller based on these events would be dismissed as implausible. Even the writers of 24 wouldn't go this far. Renault's security chief uncovers a plot by three executives to steal electric car secrets. The three are fired, but then exonerated. And the security chief -- who pocketed $433,000 of Renault's money to pay off the anonymous tipster in the case -- is now under suspicion himself. Secret bank accounts in Spain and Dubai have been uncovered, and Gevrey was arrested as he was about to board a plane for Africa.

No matter how it plays out, the roiling Renault espionage case is a major embarrassment not only to the company but to CEO Carlos Ghosn, who acted precipitously in firing the executives on very flimsy evidence. How flimsy? Exhibit A is the anonymous note that started the whole thing, and it concludes, "Of course, I have no proof-- but if it is all wrong then I'm paranoid."

Ghosn likely to weather the storm
Considering that Renault was conned by an expert (accused security chief Dominique Gevrey is an ex-French military intelligence officer), Ghosn will probably survive the debacle, as will his embattled second-in-command Patrick Pelata (Ghosn's former classmate and current protégé). Pelata offered to resign, but Ghosn -- who gave up his $2.2 million bonus (and stock options) as penance -- turned him down "in the interest of Renault." The French carmaker, which had sales of $54.5 billion in 2010, is profitable, so calls to unseat the management team are muted.

At no time was it clear who the buyers of the EV secrets were supposed to be (the Chinese were often fingered in news reports). Despite the lack of any kind of gun, let alone a smoking one, Ghosn went on television and said he had "total certainty" about the guilt of the three Renault executives, all of whom were fired. A criminal complaint was also filed. But now the three are to be offered a financial settlement likely to run into millions.

Renault's big EV push
Given the lurid details, most accounts of the espionage mess focus on cash-filled envelopes instead of the EV secrets Renault might actually want to protect. Renault doesn't sell cars in the U.S., so its EV plans are less familiar to Americans than those of the other company Ghosn heads, Nissan. But Renault is making similar, and even more expansive moves.

Renault markets a sister electric car to the Nissan Leaf called the Fluence Z.E., which can now be ordered in Europe and reaches customers in mid-year. The Fluence Z.E. has swappable batteries, and charging company Better Place has ordered 100,000 of them for its operations in Denmark and Israel.

Also in the Renault lineup is a smaller electric called the Zoe, scheduled for 2012, a van called the Kangoo Z.E. and a tiny and very French city car called the Twizy, slated for late 2011. Together it amounts to an electric push dwarfing that of Nissan. No wonder the French got their culottes in a bunch when it appeared their secrets were leaking overseas.

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Photos: Renault (Fluence); Jim Motavalli (Ghosn)
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