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10 August 2018

Interview: Alfonso Albaisa, Senior VP, Global Design for Nissan

Talking to Nissan's global design head about the Chennai design studio, Nissan's future and the evolution of car design

Aatish Mishra
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Alfonso Albaisa, Senior VP, Global Design for Nissan Motor Co. Ltd came to India to visit the Nissan Design Studio in Chennai. While doing so, he also looked to spread his Roots of Design programme in local schools, talking to kids and their parents about careers in design. We managed to catch up with him for a quick chat sometime in the middle of his tight schedule.

Q: Tell us about the Indian Design Studio?
AA: I can’t talk the specific projects that are coming here, but there are two types of projects – there can be projects that can be designed anywhere, and then rationalised here in Chennai with our engineers. Right now that is the kind of project we are working on. Very quickly, we are going to initiate projects specifically for India. In the world we talk about globalisation and all that, but the reality of the matter is that very large markets like India with the population being the way it is, the movement of society, the ability to buy new cars and the technology that is coming, there is going to be a lot of cars bought. So we will be creating some cars here from scratch. So there will be downstream projects with production engineering and upstream ones that involve concept creation.

Q: Is there any specific capability you are building here, so that the Indian design studio becomes a strategic hub for the company?
AA: The eyes. I think the ability to know what is happening in India cannot be duplicated in California or London. You need to be in a place that is exploding with change. The technical aspects are arguably not so different, they will do the same type of work but they will do it differently. There are some differences. The California studio is very physical, less digital – they work with a lot of clay, it’s a little more old school. London is a little different. In India, because of the education and the training, they have a great competency in digital – creation of the data, and the shape. But we will have clay facilities, the whole thing.

Q: The Kwid has been a major success for Renault, and one of the success reasons is its design. Do we expect something from the Nissan India team, do they have any mandate to work on something similar – a product designed for India?
AA: My team in India is young.  So obviously, I turn to my brothers and sisters in Renault. We have a nice benchmark, of again the eyes and feeling of the ground, of what may work. My mandate to the team is to make something wonderful for India, that I couldn’t imagine at my desk in Tokyo. That’s the value they are bringing to my organization. They can be someplace that we cannot be. 

I want to create derivatives. I don’t want them to wait for us to give a project. Bring them to us, don’t worry.  Give us a sense of what is happening on the street. Together we can make plans, we can move resources back and forth because to make a car takes a lot of people. And ramping up in India is quite tough, we’re not the only kids on the block.

Q: What do you see India wanting in terms of design, and what do you have to offer?  
AA: Obviously, what is happening in the 4-metre, the sub-4-metre cars, what’s going to happen with electrification in the Indian market, what’s the trend of SUV-crossovers – there are a lot of things happening here. Especially the nuance – where the customer puts the line between a crossover and an SUV, we always need the help of someone close to the customer. The Kicks is our first start. We are bringing some Leafs and seeing how that goes to understand the market. I think this is a powerful technology for everywhere.
Autonomous driving – how that is going to play in India with our engineers, they have a lot of work there. The connectivity in India is benchmark level. There are two places that are really going to a high level – China and India – way beyond other markets, how that is going to change the interiors of cars tomorrow, when you are able to get all your information on screens and stuff and how that changes the car. They have a lot of work.  

Q: Everyone is moving to SUVs and crossovers, India is still a hatchback market. Especially the premium hatches. The Micra is an old product and the new Micra is out in Europe, but over 4m. Is it a big challenge to get it under 4m?
AA: Below 4 metres with five people being comfortable is not easy. You're dealing with fundamental things. To do a 4-metre car that has easy access to the back seat requires that the tyres must get smaller, the wheel arch must get smaller to get the backdoor to open. It is the worst domino effect and I compliment anyone who makes a beautiful sub-4m. So speaking not as my company but any designer, I would say that there are some dimensions that are more difficult to make beautiful. We do studies about ratios, about tyre areas vs body area vs body height and glass height – even designers do these things. You’re dealing with a fairly short (wheelbase) car which is quite tall, people are sitting upright – it is tough. It is easier to do a Ferrari. That’s why SUVs are designer dreams. Because the tyres get larger and you get this optimistic message of the car’s dynamic movement and you’re visually allowed to add muscle and mass because the tyres are growing. It’s a nice recipe, its a little bit easier at 4.1 metres.  

Q: Infiniti used to have a very Japanese design, and then it shifted to a European design. Now it is more global. Do you think such a uniqueness in design language can be cultivated for mass market cars, especially because you’re dealing with Datsun.  
AA:  The point of being Japanese it to have deep curiosity of other cultures and make it part of our company. I have an obligation as head of design to bring to all of the brands a sense of Japan, but the spirit of the country that they live in, to respect the designers that I hire and expect them to influence our vision. So for our designers in India, it is a tall task, but they need to scream loud that this is what is needed. This is what the brand should be. A Japanese brand that is powerful in India is natural. It’s frustrating that it is not, yet. We are re-doing Datsun, yes. A lot of it is a natural evolution of the platform. We’ve allowed them to make a different aspiration, a different type of meaning to Datsun. Nissan is also changing platforms, and then we were able to create a different type of aspiration for the Nissan brand. This is stuff you will start to see in the next couple of years.   

Q: Do you believe EVs are the future? If so, does the whole architecture of design change?
AA: From a design point of view, it is very freeing. It is a bit of magic carpet with the flat battery pack, and then watermelons – the EV motors are about the size of watermelons. It is very freeing, because where you put it and the reduction of volume allows us to take elements that are normally in the cabin and move them around the watermelons. And it creates an interior volume that is impressive, much bigger within of a 4.4 metres you’re getting much more space. And they’re powerful, they’re fun to drive. Our next EV, the crossover, will have the torque of a GT-R. The last time I checked, the GT-R is a monster.  


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