Ralph Gilles Discusses Technology, Urban Mobility, and Electric Vehicles

Suji Sugathan
Nov 24, 2022
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Stellantis' head stylist offers insight on the future of design, from EVs to UVs, while working on anything from V10 supercars to practical minivans.

You may thank Ralph Gilles and his group of designers if you enjoy the cars produced by Dodge, Chrysler, Jeep, and many of the other Stellantis brands. Considering that Gilles entered the company in 1992 and worked his way up to the position of Head of Design today, at least for the most of the last 30 years.

Gilles played a significant role in the design of some of America's most recognisable muscle cars throughout this multi-decade tenure, which spans over five business names and nine CEOs: the Dodge SRT Viper, Chrysler's reimagined 300C, and the Jeep SRT Grand Cherokee.

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Although the majority of Gilles' influence on the auto industry can be attributed to his designs, that hasn't stopped him from carrying out tasks that go beyond making automobiles physically appealing. Gilles was appointed president and chief executive officer of the Dodge brand in 2009, then in 2011 he was designated president and chief executive officer of SRT and Motorsports at Fiat-Chrysler America.

Only someone with experience in numerous road rallies and racing competitions, such as the Targa Newfoundland Rally and the Car and Driver One Lap of America, can understand this. As the executive sponsor of the Fiat Chrysler African American Network and a mentor to contemporary design students at his alma mater, The College for Creative Studies in Detroit, Gilles is also a proponent of diversity and inclusion both inside and outside of Stellantis.

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With a record like that, Gilles is among the most well-known designers working today, and his other designers appear to agree. The 2023 EyesOn Design Lifetime Design Achievement Award, given to current designers by award winners, was given to Gilles at the age of 52. Legends and previous winners like Edward T. Welburn, Tom Gale, and Peter Brock chose Gilles as the winner this year, and the list dates back to 1988. We spoke with the recipient of the award, who had just received it before the LA Auto Show, to learn more about the future of automotive design.

Question: Do you believe that consumers paying attention to design language is important? Or is the notion that they naturally find the car to make sense when they look at it?

Richard Gilles: The majority of my friends and relatives are unaware, as I have learned from speaking with them. All they care about is how it makes them feel. If people give it a fleeting glance and say, "Ugh, that's not for me," you did something really wrong. However, most of the time, while considering a design, people will kind of think about it for a while before deciding that they don't really like this part.

They are able to express it. And if you've done a very excellent job with the design, I think they may say things like, "I love the front end" or "I adore this or that" when they truly enjoy something. It's good design language whenever something has a heart in front of it. I desire this intense, visceral sensation. Also, I don't care if someone thinks I detest it. Because sometimes I think it's preferable to have a divisive design. Something shouldn't appeal to everyone.

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Question: Do you occasionally want to push people outside their comfort zones in terms of vehicle design?

Richard Gilles: It varies! More so on some brands than others. There are, sort of, let's say, self-imposed facts as well, like, say, the Wrangler. It works so well that there's no reason to change it. They adore it. Additionally, it is constructed so that it functions. But it's obvious that there will come a day when the fundamentals supporting the car change to the point where we also need to adjust. With the electric movement, that is essentially what we are experiencing at the moment.

Question: Sometimes, and sometimes in a more futuristic fashion, current design makes EVs appear distinct from what we think of as regular ICE automobiles. Do you believe that this is one of the characteristics that makes them electric vehicles? Do you believe that eventually they won't seem as futuristic?

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Richard Gilles: Being futuristic is a decision, regardless of the driving system. It might be futuristic and conventionally powered or futuristic and electric-powered. There is, in my opinion, a slight presumption that EV buyers want the world to know they made the purchase. And at the beginning, maybe that was true, in my opinion. Moving forward, an EV is merely another option. In the future, an EV will be only one more option for propulsion. It still needs to be a decent car, stylish, and have excellent functionality. So, we're using that by default. The car's beauty and excellent performance are really what we're more concerned with. We must continue to develop the brand ethos that each of our brands represents. For me, maintaining brand development is one of the design's main goals.

Question: Could you please elaborate on the relationship between the design and packaging of EVs?

Richard Gilles: The primary absence of a driveshaft and the use of a battery pack in place of a transmission tunnel account for a significant portion of it. You don't have an engine box; you have a frunk. Knowing how to use that space is a big one. We have a diving hood line on the Banshee design that would not be conceivable if we used a conventional approach. In a subtle way, it makes its intention clear by celebrating aerodynamics. We had the option of using a shovel nose. We chose not to since it would give the automobile much, much, much more personality.

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Question: Please elaborate on the trend toward larger vehicles and the rising sales of SUVs for me. How does that affect how bigger cars are designed as opposed to smaller cars?

Richard Gilles: I believe that the definition of a car is becoming more ambiguous. You're observing the popularity of utility vehicles, or UVs, which are widely available. They resemble each other's silhouettes in some way. As aerodynamics is pushed, UVs begin to become more svelte, but people continue to refer to what practically like a sedan as a UV. One aspect that makes UVs appealing is its high ride height, which makes getting in and out of it comfortable. However, there is this conflict between cargo and aerodynamics. 

Question: As a result of regulatory concerns, several airliners resemble one another quite a bit. Do you ever fret about that when using EVs or cars?

Richard Gilles: Yes, we frequently make light of that. If all EVs must achieve the same aero number, we need to exercise caution lest we turn into the aircraft business. We are considering that problem while also weighing our options. We may sacrifice 20 miles of range to give the design more personality. Additionally, we're very confident that there will be additional charging stations available in the future. Thus, range won't be as important. You start arguing about a few miles once you cross a certain number of miles.

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Question: What are you considering in terms of compact automobiles and possibly two-wheeled vehicles when it comes to urban mobility from a design perspective? 

Richard Gilles: Our PSA Company created the [Citreon] AMI, a specific type of intercity car, just like our other group. Very nicely made and reasonably priced. It will probably be something where we collaborate with others to test things like the last-mile challenge in the mobility sector. Even with Archer, we're getting involved. We are inspired by what they are doing and have decided to collaborate because there is undoubtedly something intriguing about air and last-mile solutions.

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Question: Which brands have been the most satisfying to work on?

Richard Gilles: It's amusing to interpret Dodge. Actually, we also apply the same principles to Chrysler. We're having a great time reimagining it. To me right now, it's a Jeep. Simply fascinating I enjoy seeing Jeep develop in front f my very eyes. I've been working for the business for a while now. So it's been interesting to see how it changed from being practically a niche brand to becoming a globally recognised and well-liked brand. The Avenger B-segment Jeep, which we recently debuted in Europe, has garnered positive reviews thus far. And we're selling Jeeps like crazy in South America. They adore our Jeeps in China. The new Commander there is adored by them. Just a brand that is incredibly adaptable. Even though we've arrived, we remain faithful to who we are.

  • Ralph Gilles
  • Stellantis' chief stylist
  • Gilles' impact
  • EyesOn Design Lifetime Design Achievement Award

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