We sat down with Ralph Gilles, the global head of design for Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, at the 2017 Detroit Auto Show. The veteran stylist has worked for the company for 25 years, and oversees the design of all of the products in the FCA portfolio – everything from mobility pods to Maseratis. This serves Gilles just fine, as his personal automotive interests are exceedingly diverse. The FCA stand was unusually quiet (until Vice President Joe Biden stopped by at the end of our time there) and Gilles was willing to weigh in on a wide range of subjects.

Autoblog: We're seeing all of these autonomous mobility pods like Portal being presented at auto shows like CES or NAIAS, but we're not seeing any adoption of this kind of small vehicle in the market. What's your perspective on our pod-like autonomous future versus our truck-centric present?

Ralph Gilles: Obviously I pay attention to the industry as much as your readers and yourself, and everyone has a take on the future. We had a debate, we could have done a supercar or something for pure sex appeal [apparently that's also in the works], but we chose something practical, to really look at the future in a different perspective. We have these Millennials, a huge swath of people born between 1982 and 2004, and the oldest ones are turning 35 right about now, and a lot of them are having families later in life but when they have them they have a little more buying power, so it makes for an interesting cocktail.



The one stipulation we had on the Portal project was that everyone had to be a Millennial to be on the team. So that excluded me, I had more of a coach role on the team. And to your point, the Portal in its current state as you see it is not going to be on the road tomorrow. But there's a lot of ideas, a lot of connectivity ideas, a lot of styling ideas, even lighting and technologies that will absolutely find their way into vehicles in the next few years.

AB: Being a Detroiter, all of this attention we've had recently in Vegas, CES – I heard that they're maybe going to be running the show at the same time next year. Do you feel a little protective of the Detroit Show?

RG: Yeah, it's something to watch. I hope it's not an aggressive thing on their part, by moving the shows on top of each other. They're both important shows. CES, I've been going to for the last five years, and it's changing. There's a lot more automotive content, but there are a lot more start-ups too, and it's interesting to watch.

I'm seeing something happening with the automotive realm where home life, personal life, work life, hobby life is all really blending in a very purposeful overlap of technology that is really seamless. So tech companies are getting into all the spaces, and it's not lost on them that phone companies are trying to get into automotive, and automotive companies are trying to get into connectivity. We're very open-minded at FCA. Partnerships are cool – it's good to know what you're good at, and good to be humble about what you don't know. And that's exactly what the Portal was, it was a lot of collaboration. None of our suppliers asked for compensation. They were all partners, true partners.

AB: The other big news that's going on for you here is Pacifica. There are all of these countervailing trends that seem to be working against various segments in the industry with a decline in car sales and soaring crossover and truck sales. Honda is showing its new Odyssey here. What do you see in the future of the minivan?

RG: I would say that our present philosophy of making the minivan as attractive as possible, as practical as possible, and as efficient as possible is working. We've conquested a lot of people who have had other types of transportation back into a minivan – the van is hard to beat. I'm seeing our sales going up every month. Sales in the segment have stopped shrinking, they're pretty flat, but no longer shrinking, and we're getting a bigger portion of that again, which means that people are still paying attention to this space. And we're such a big player in that segment that we believe that if we can be tastemakers – if we can make the vehicle attractive and practical, exquisitely executed, I think you can breathe new life into very established segments. Our engineers, our teams did an amazing job on Pacifica. It's the most advanced vehicle the group is making in many ways.

I think it's never going to defeat the crossovers. But our research shows us that minivan customers love the fundamentals – they love that the doors slide, the low floor height, the flat floor. So that's why we didn't mess with the fundamentals. We just added on some more cool features. And the hybrid is the icing on the cake, the new plug-in hybrid Pacifica.

Autodesk VRED Professional 2017 SR1

AB: You see chains of trains of autonomous minivans driving around like public transportation in our future?

RG: Well, Google could have picked any product to demonstrate their new assistance technology. It's a compliment that they sought out the Pacifica.

AB: Did you go and check out the Odyssey?

RG: Of course! That's part of why I'm here. That's the one thing I love about going to these shows, it's a great benchmarking thing. I think it's great that they finally hid the sliding door track. I'm surprised that it took them this long. It's still very much an Odyssey, but they smoothed out some of the rough edges, it's evolutionary.

AB: What about the Alfa brand? That's a brand that has some uphill challenges.

RG: That's not how I see it. I see it as nothing but upside. Because two years ago, there was no Alfa brand to speak of in the Detroit show. And we're on our second year here and we have a cadre of products. We have multiple versions of the Giulia. We have the 4C coupe and Spider, and now we have the Stelvio, and it all will be in market by late summer of this year, and the Giulia is in market now, so it's really exciting to see it really happening. It's like fine wine in a way, it took some time to get there. But you have to do it right, and we have. I drive one every day – I have a Giulia – and I love it. I'm literally in love with that car. I kiss the emblem when I get home from work.

2017 Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio

AB: Are you looking for any vintage cars right now?

RG: I'm done buying cars for right now. I have a daughter who is 18 and about to go to college, and my wife has put me on lockdown. But the last car I bought was a 1969 Alfa Romeo GTV, and I love that car as well. I also kiss the emblem. They're very different, but the character of the brand has survived, which is cool.

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