Designs Will Depend On The Role Internet Plays In Our Future Vehicles

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One of the most-acclaimed automobile designers in the world, Shiro Nakamura is known to be a hands-on creative, credited with designing some of the world's most exciting cars like the Nissan 370Z and the GT-R. In his recent visit to India, we caught up with him for a detailed understanding of the design philosophy of the Nissan Group, and how he has created individual identities for each of the three brands – Nissan, Infiniti and Datsun.

As the Senior Vice President and Chief Creative Officer, Design and Brand Management for Nissan Motor Company, Shiro Nakamura is responsible for overseeing the creation of distinctive and innovative designs, managing global design strategies and developing mid- and long-term design concepts and innovative ideas for the entire Nissan Group. Nakamura also serves as President of both Nissan Design America (NDA) and Nissan Design Europe (NDE). A Bachelor of Arts in industrial design from the Musashino Art University in Tokyo, Japan, Nakamura also holds a Bachelor of Science degree with distinction in transportation design from the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. Prior to joining Nissan in 1999, Nakamura held various senior level positions with Isuzu Motors for 25 years. Nakamura also worked with the Advanced Design Studio of General Motors in Michigan. Born in Osaka, Japan in 1950, some of Nakamura's famous creations include the Nissan 370Z, Altima, cube, Murano and GT-R, as well as Infiniti M, G, and FX.

ATR _ Nakamura san, a design language undergoes a constant process of evolution. How has the design philosophy at Nissan evolved over the years?

SHIRO NAKAMURA _ I think a lot of things have changed since the year 2000. At that time, Infiniti was a much smaller brand within the Nissan Group. And now, we have a third brand in Datsun. So, I had the challenge of managing design from a brand point of view. The focus is on making each brand more individualistic, more distinctive. Moreover, the market reach for the Nissan brand was much smaller 14 years back. China wasn't as big as it is today, and India wasn't in our map; but today, we have two of our brands here.

Products are becoming more global, and gone are the days of having individual products for individual markets. From a design perspective, that is very challenging but less complicated from what used to be 15 years back. Innovation and excitement, nonetheless, continues to be the core DNA of Nissan design.

How do you address complexities of different brands targeted at different customers across different markets?

We have specific brand strategies for each brand. We first look at what each individual brand stands for, and build the design upwards. That leads to the development of design elements or design vocabulary for each brand. From an organisation point of view, we used to have a single global team but now we have separate global teams for each of our three brands.

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So, is there a separate design vocabulary for each of the three individual brands?

Nissan is a much diversified brand with a wide range of products, ranging from the Micra to the GT-R. It's hard to develop a consistent design vocabulary for the Nissan brand. Infiniti, on the other hand, is a much smaller brand. The Infiniti Q50 Eau Rouge, for example, represents the Infiniti design vocabulary – very seductive and mysterious. That holds true for our future Infiniti products as well, be it the Q30 or the Etherea Concept. The Datsun Go meanwhile, has a simple, robust and fairly straight forward design language, and the same has been carried forward with the Redi-Go concept, which is basic and less complicated.

You talked about how design is becoming more global in nature, but do you think the changing dynamics of the market could throw open region-specific design demands in the future?

Yes, indeed. It is very important to understand each individual market. However, keeping economic considerations in mind, you can't create products one-by-one. Having said that, certain changes like that of colour, is made based on region-specific demands and preferences. From an Indian standpoint, we are fairly new in this market, and I must admit, we still have a lot to learn in terms of the likes and dislikes of Indian consumers.

I don't see much difference though in terms of what Indian consumers demand vis-à-vis other western markets. I think the modern Indian history has more western influence than Asian, or maybe it's somewhere in between. Today, I don't see a major difference in what Indian consumers prefer in a vehicle to say that of a European customer. There might be physical similarities with Asians, but new-age Indians do have western tastes.

Vehicle interiors have undergone several changes in the recent past. With so much more connectivity being built into our cars, how do you see this evolving?

Communications is the feature most-in-demand across the world. There are clearly two directions that we see emerging – one direction is to have everything from navigation to cell phone connectivity to safety systems built into the vehicle system, while the other direction is what you see in the Datsun Go, for instance. You can use your smartphone for all your needs of audio, navigation or voice connectivity. This is one of the most important design aspects for us to consider in years to come, and we are keeping a constant watch on how this emerges.

There was no demand for navigation or internet in vehicles 10 years ago but today, you can't think of surviving without internet. So, we have to design vehicles considering what role internet would play in our future vehicles.

The cars of tomorrow will also be very emotional?

Absolutely correct; consumers are extremely demanding today and they want a replica of their living rooms in their cars, with every possible means for relaxation and enjoyment.

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What's the future direction of design at Nissan, both from a group perspective as well as for individual brands?

There are several aspects that we are pursuing. Electrification of vehicles is one of them, and the role of information technology in vehicles is another important aspect. There are many new technologies getting into our vehicles today, and we are bound to see several changes coming into our future cars. However, from an aesthetics (styling) point of view, customers' demands have remained fairly consistent.

Let's talk about the BladeGlider. What specific challenges do you see in designing electric and hybrid vehicles?

Hybrids are sort of an extension of the engine, and I don't think there would be big changes in hybrid technology. For electric vehicles, we have been trying to create something unique for many years. So far, we have the Leaf as the only production vehicle, which has a very conservative design approach. We have been looking for the right time to introduce something very unique like the BladeGlider. We are investigating lots of opportunities. The Leaf is now becoming more common globally and probably in the next phase we should go for something like the BladeGlider. Designing a product like the BladeGlider is not easy, because there are no benchmarks or references. But I do believe the BladeGlider is a very interesting design approach.

What's been the journey from the Leaf to the BladeGlider like? What sort of evolution have you made in designing EVs?

Leaf is basically a normal hatchback, and we have used a lot of common packaging with other Nissan cars. The objective was to build an affordable, reliable and mass-market electric car. With over 100,000 units of the Leaf sold world over, we can say our first objective has been met. The challenge now is to build EVs that break the 200 km range conveniently. Secondly, the challenge now is to make EVs unique. And that is what we are offering in the BladeGlider – a pure electric powertrain driven by lithium-ion batteries and two in-wheel motors. In-wheel motors are capable of doing different things, and I definitely want to have in-wheel motors in our next electric vehicle offering.

The industry is now seriously looking at the prospect of having autonomous vehicles on road within the next few years. Would design play any significant role in these vehicles?

I don't see a major role for designers in autonomous vehicles, certainly not in exterior design. In the interiors though, there would be minor changes required because the car has to communicate with the driver in some manner. The car would make its own decision, but it still needs to tell the driver of its decision. In some way, the car has to talk back, either though voice controls or a small display. That is the direction I see designers and engineers taking in times to come.

Lightweighting is a key area in the minds of designers today. Could you talk about the use of materials that help make vehicles more efficient and safe?

For designing, new material is more important for the vehicle's shape. Currently, steel is the most used material for vehicle design and aluminium is also being used. Steel has certain limitations, but for design specifically, aluminium has more limitations than steel. Although aluminium is light, it is not ideal for forming. Carbon-fibre is also being worked upon, but we are not sure if it is cost-competitive. We need materials that are light, inexpensive and have the freedom to create forms. Any material with these three prerequisites would be perfect for the designing purpose.

From a vehicle segment perspective, do you see a gap in the global industry that Nissan can potentially tap?

We are very strong in the crossover segment with products like the Qashqai and Juke. It's a pretty exciting area, and I believe this is an area that has a lot to offer in the future. But there's nothing that I can talk about today.

Some designs philosophies are loud, some continue to be subtle. What to your view is a sustainable design approach?

It actually depends on the brand positioning and strength. Sometimes, certain products demand being loud, while at other times you can bring a subtle design to the market. If you want to be modest in your design, you must have a very strong reputation and brand. Newcomers in the market, for instance, have to be loud with their designs to make a statement, else they might go unnoticed. I believe loud designs have a negative side, and one must be very careful in balancing the long-term design objective with the short-term loud designs.

Design obviously is influenced by a variety of factors. How are you preparing yourself to deal with challenges of the future?

Along with the Leaf, we started supporting the creation of a charging infrastructure, helped in battery production, battery recycling and battery reproduction. The electric powerplant has a much bigger opportunity in the future as beyond the product, we have opportunities in service and software as well.

Text: Deepangshu Dev Sarmah

Photo: Bharat Bhushan Upadhyay