SAE 2014 Convergence: Chrysler's Gilles rallies engineers to think like futurists

  • 21-Oct-2014 02:18 EDT
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"We still create the car with clay and sketches on paper, but we're also going into the brave new world. We're using a lot more digital tools than ever before. The same processors that the movie industry uses, we use at our desktops," shared Chrysler Group LLC's Ralph Gilles at SAE 2014 Convergence. At left is Convergence Chair Christine Barman of Chrysler.

Engineers should think like a futurist, a Chrysler executive advises SAE 2014 Convergence attendees.

Some of the best futurists are Hollywood writers. “They don’t have any rules. They can dream up anything they want to, and they do,” said Ralph Gilles, President and Chief Executive Officer of Motorsports for Chrysler Group LLC and the company’s Senior Vice President of Product Design. Gilles was the Tuesday morning SAE 2014 Convergence keynote speaker at Cobo Center in Detroit.

The 1980s TV show “Knight Rider” followed the adventures of Michael Knight (played by actor David Hasselhoff) and his crime-solving sidekick, an artificially intelligent and heavily modified Pontiac Firebird Trans Am. Cue that futuristic car’s flashing dashboard lights...

“The idea behind it: This car can do just about everything. It’s connected to a server that is driving itself. It’s reading your mind. It’s your psychiatrist. It’s your concierge. As silly as that may have been, most of that is happening now. It’s actually available today,” said Gilles.

While today’s cars aren’t mind-readers, many vehicles have mind-boggling capabilities courtesy of the car’s computing power. And much of that super-power is channeled through onboard electronic control units.

“You can’t sell a car at $20,000 with 100 computers on board. But there’s going to be a time when you squeeze it down to five or 10 processors doing all that, and it’s affordable again,” Gilles said. “Now you can bring that goodness, so to speak, to the masses.”

Bringing useful technology to consumers begins with designers and engineers working from the same script.

“We talk about the customer a lot more than the car, or the project, or the cost savings. The customer is the epicenter of every discussion at Chrysler. That by default makes us work together,” Gilles said.

One collective voice that is getting attention is the comments and opinions of persons aged 60 and older. Chrysler’s talks with the elderly demographic has resulted in changes, including larger buttons and bigger font sizes.

“You’re always marketing to the 25-year-olds, trying to be hip and cool. And the truth is, they don’t have any money [so] they can’t buy cars,” said Gilles. “Most of American wealth is literally [with persons] in their 60s and above. So go talk with them.”

Knowing the future needs and wants of consumers can be a big assist to designers and engineers.

“I think the most important thing is observing culture. The future is already happening in micro-spots, whether it’s India or Tokyo or [elsewhere], it’s happening. Observing popular culture is the most important thing we can do. Get out and see what’s going on. And if you aggregate all that, you can be your own futurist,” Gilles said. “I think every company needs to be a futurist in their own right to really be relevant.”

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