Bringing Nissan’s future into focus

  • 17-Feb-2014 12:39 EST
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Rachel Nguyen, Director, Global Upstream Planning, Nissan Motor Co.

The daughter of a pair of psychologists, Rachel Nguyen, Director, Global Upstream Planning, Nissan Motor Co., took her natural inclination for psychology and combined it a personal interest in consumer research and cross-functional teaming to pursue a doctorate in organizational psychology. Now in her 13th year with Nissan’s advanced planning department, Nguyen is responsible for looking at the longer-term trends affecting the automotive market and how the automaker thus responds in its future products. Automotive Engineering Assistant Editor Matthew Monaghan recently sat down with Nguyen at Nissan’s full-line media event in Newport Beach, CA, to discuss her role and the changes happening within the industry.

What is the relationship like between product and advanced planning?

In advanced planning, we do the upstream consumer work and the concept. Product planning is involved because they are the ones that take it all the way through the launch. Product planning works on the actual putting the flesh on the bones, working with engineering and design to make it real and ensure its competitiveness. We work with them to set the direction for this vehicle—what is this next generation or this new vehicle going to be all about. For exploratory work, it’s much different. It’s more looking at what are the things happening outside of our industry, what are the major shifts that could lead to full-scale changes in what we provide. Our work used to be more about just demographic shifts and global demographics, but now we’re looking at bigger trends in societies.

Is the integration of consumer electronics into vehicles a recent example of that?

IT hit the industry by surprise. All the sudden they’re stuck with proprietary systems and everybody wants open, and consumers’ expectations are far ahead. That was an indication for the industry that we need to be outside of our game more.

What is the primary time frame for your department’s thinking?

Today, it’s hard to put a time frame on it. When you think about where we’re going, we think at least 10 years out, but something could come out with what we learned that could be implemented quickly. So now the balance is having your head in the future but knowing what’s happening today. Most of my career in advanced planning I could just rest on knowing the future because the other products were coming. But now it is more about knowing the trends today and modifying something immediately or introducing something faster.

How do you forecast something reliant on infrastructure, which Nissan doesn’t have as much control over?

The important part is to be a manufacturer that’s engaged in that and sitting at the table at the talks about infrastructure. The more that we can be a part of it, the better insight you have to forecast how fast that can happen. That’s our goal, developing the relationships outside of just what we make. Some of that is a guess, though, so wait and see or prepare for multiple scenarios.

In preparing forecasts, what people do you rely on to help shape your vision?

We don’t have a huge room of data analysts somewhere like some industries do. A lot of it is relying on expertise where you can find it. Sometimes it’s going outside. Sometimes it’s just talking to the experts that can focus time on that. The role of advanced planning is making sense of things. Nobody outside the company is putting it all together for us and knowing what we’re thinking about inside. That’s our role to be sort of a group that collaborates internally and externally, wading the boundaries to put it together and make sense.

How have you seen buyers’ mind-sets change in the past 5-10 years?

About seven years ago, I did some U.S. research talking to [buyers] about lane-departure warning systems and braking assist, and the reaction was, “No way, I need to control that vehicle; I don’t want anything taking over from me.” They were pretty adamant about that. Then they get their cell phones and they’re in their cars doing things they shouldn’t and and they want to multitask. The whole use of the vehicle has definitely changed. We’ve seen more and more appeal of the autonomous vehicle. I’ve seen some data that shows Europe is less willing to give up on the control of the vehicle, but I think Americans are more open to it than I remember hearing even five years ago.

How do you view the attraction of driving a car for young people?

They’re not in love with it. It is about how to bring them back to the auto industry. What kind of things can we do to make the car more interesting to them.

What are your expectations for vehicle size moving forward?

In my tenure, we went through bigger is better. Every year the starting block was how do we get more size out of this platform for the D-segment sedan. Then energy and oil prices and the economy right-sized us in size, but we’re nowhere near where the rest of the world is. It’s that just-in-case mind-set that’s truly American. People ask if downsizing has ended and I don’t know. I think the bigger change is away from personal vehicle ownership. When you start to think about shared use and mobility systems then you see probably different sized vehicles for that. Because the just-in-case isn’t there anymore. When it’s a personal vehicle I’m not sure people are going to give up driving a midsize anything. The big global change is this movement toward urbanization. Therefore we’re seeing things move away from auto-centric societies to mobility-centric societies.

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