Fiat Chrysler design chief Ralph Gilles questions a self-driving future

But believes the race to autonomy is making cars better now

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles design chief Ralph Gilles lives in the future, though he’s reticent to share what it looks like. Gilles and I met on a steamy Michigan August day at his spacious office in the Chrysler World Headquarters and Technology Center overlooking the company’s North American headquarters, some 30 miles north of Detroit. But what he thinks, even in theory, will have a major impact on the future of the automobile.

Much has changed at Chrysler Corporation since Gilles joined in 1992, including the name on the company door, several times over. Founded in 1925, Chrysler has always been a company of dramatic highs and lows, and, compared to its crosstown rivals GM and Ford, prided itself on its outsider personality. Chrysler loomed close to extinction twice — receiving bailouts in 1979 and 2009 — but always managed to beat the odds. Since its 2011 acquisition by Fiat, the company has been under the direction of CEO Sergio Marchionne.

Like most designers, Gilles has high regard for glorious cars of the past. In fact, the audacious physique of the Chrysler 300, which elevated Gilles’ profile to national prominence when it was introduced in 2003, was inspired by the classic 1955 C-300. In 2008, Gilles became the lead of the US design studio and in 2009, his role became even more prominent when he was made CEO of the Dodge brand and then CEO of the SRT brand in 2011. This was the era of the latest Viper and Hellcat Challenger, which makes sense: Gilles has a genuine racing streak — he spends up to 10 weekends a year at the track.

In his current role, Gilles oversees hundreds of designers from Auburn Hills, Michigan, to Europe and Asia. Gilles is responsible for brands as varied as Jeep, Fiat, Chrysler, Dodge, Alfa Romeo, Lancia, Abarth, Maserati, and Ram. Working across cultures provides insights, he says. "In some ways, what we’re describing for the US is already in Europe. The future is already here, it’s just not here. It’s in different places."

But if there’s a single universal theme he sees worldwide, it’s disruption: "Every smart company has to disrupt itself," Gilles told me. "We’re less public about that than others," Gilles says. "There’s a lot of people trying to anticipate disruption, talk about it, and fend it off by talking about it. We’re very mum about that."

Gilles is quick to point to the lessons of history: over the course of 20th century, thousands of car brands became extinct. "It’s not the first time disruptions have come," he says.

I’ve had a chance to observe and get to know Gilles over the years. He is both perpetually curious and pragmatic, and gets a charge out of discussing design conundrums. In our hour-long meeting, we discussed self-driving, his passion for motorsports, and how he keeps up with the dizzying pace of connectivity developments.

Photo credit: Fabrizio Constantini

Can you walk me through how the design process is different now than when you first started designing cars?

We start from the interior now. The interior is almost taking precedence. We start from the inside out, but we don’t start with what you’d imagine — a great-looking interior and then we stick technology wherever you can find room. It’s more like, here’s what we’d like the car to do, the kind of technology we can afford. The big conversation now is how can a car remain current throughout its entire lifecycle? We’re trying to find ways to embed what can be embedded in ways that make sense and keep the car flexible so that it can adapt with the times. If you couldn’t remodel your home, you’d get pretty tired of it after a while.

This is the year where self-driving has become the biggest topic in the car industry. How do you gauge what’s happening both inside and out of the company and keep up with the developments?

What’s happening right now is a lot of talk. I’m fascinated by how easily the word "autonomous" rolls off the media’s mouth and the optimism of autonomy. Every company has a version of it and feels like they have to make a statement, even [it it’s] prematurely, before they understand the commitment, what it means to society, and what’s the benefit. What’s consistent is that there’s a claim that safety is the outcome: if cars are truly autonomous, then we won’t have accidents anymore. If the future is 100 percent autonomy and the only way you get around is autonomous, then okay, you could argue that cars could be interlinked, kind of like airplanes are. They talk to each other, they’re aware of where they are — and that’s a very regulated world. Is that what people want, sharing cars with strangers in programmed ways and scheduling their lives?

The freedom of the automobile is personal. I don’t think it’s a story of ecology in terms of autonomous driving. It’s almost said in the same sentence — electric cars are autonomous, but they are not related to me.

In the meantime, what I find is that the industry is chasing [autonomy] with such vigor that a lot of great technologies are spilling off of the adventure — incredible gains in safety technology, affordable radar technology, LIDAR. A lot of great systems are being developed, [that are] launching in our everyday cars and are already reducing crashes. The benefits are just going to keep coming. I think that’s great. I know one day, my mom, who is in her 70s, will not fear driving at night. I see the autonomous thing in our near future as being kind of a hyper assist, like the car is your friend and really looks out for you.

Full autonomy is more complicated. It’s like cloning the human mind. We sense things in emotional ways [and] in physical ways. We communicate things with other drivers through eye contact, blinking, motion in high beams. There’s so many things we’re doing that we’re not aware we’re doing.

You must design cars for the next decade and beyond — and one where self-driving cars might be a part of the road. So how do FCA’s self-driving cars look?

If the car is driverless, do people care how cars look? My job is to make sure that yes, they always care, and people care how we project our brands, whether or not that car is owned by anyone. If it’s enjoyed by somebody somehow, it should be beautiful. But I do think the shift [that] is going to happen and is already happening [is that] interiors are taking a big role in the purchase decision — [really] in the experience of any kind of transportation. We’re investing in that. We’ve grown our [design] department four times in the last 10 years and we’re growing our infotainment, the electronics, and the consumer interface part of our business dramatically.

But it’s increasingly clear that you have to bridge the worlds of the traditional car industry and the tech work, even among your own staff in the design department. How do you bring it all together?

We’re hiring people from outside of our usual track out of design schools. We’re hiring kids from communication companies and even the gaming industries, infotainment design, product design, fashion. One day maybe civil planners, who knows? We’re definitely reaching out of our comfort zone. We’ve opened up great gateways to Palo Alto. We’ve had a lot of great discussions with our partners out there. We’re sending more of our staff there. I don’t think it’s an adversarial thing at all. If anything, the two worlds are overlaying beautifully, the tech world and the classic Midwestern transportation icons are actually realizing that there’s a good overlap.

People fantasize about all of the things they will be free to do in a car that drives itself. But until we reach full autonomy, this tendency to be distracted can be dangerous. We already see it with people’s tendency to drive and text.

You have to get ahead of it. We’ve already been doing that with some of our connectivity schemes. We’re trying to present the technology in an elegant way that is consumable and is also tiered in a way that (emphasizes) what really matters in that moment.

Are there existing products that have helped shaped your future plans for connectivity?

For the Dodge Charger police car, we did an awesome interface. It’s a best selling product. The police are huge consumers of electronics in their cars. We learned a lot from that police program, how can we transfer that knowledge into future cars — the large format screen. They feel like they’re engaged.

The average car is driven for more than a decade so I imagine it’s especially hard to keep up with the technology and product changes when cars must be planned for a much longer cycle.

We already have some things with CarPlay and Android coming very aggressively into our cars. So there’s a huge world beyond that we’re very aware of. The auto industry — I think there’s a perception that we’re a little stagnant. People forget that the average car costs between $26,000 and $28,000. If you think about all the regulations, the safety, the fuel economy, the different climates we have to accommodate from north to south, the different countries — it’s a miracle, the modern car. To get from sketch, to out of the factory, into your driveway, it’s an incredibly complex thing.