Nissan sees digital connection, self-driving as future of autos
Nissan Motor Co Ltd, the Japanese automaker, inaugurated its design center recently in Shanghai. It is aimed at marshaling the city’s talent pool and energy to create designs for car buyers in China and across the world. It is one of eight such centers in the world.
Nissan entered the Chinese market in the 1970s. Last year, the automaker sold more than 1.56 million vehicles in China and the country is one of the company’s largest market.
Shanghai Daily recently talked with Alfonso Albaisa, 54, Nissan senior vice president of global design, during his visit to Shanghai. Albaisa discussed the design preferences of Chinese car buyers and details of the new center.
Albaisa is a Cuban-American born in Florida. He has spent his entire career at Nissan, rising to become a leading global automotive designer. He graduated from the Pratt Institute in New York in 1988. In his spare time, he enjoys sailing on the open ocean.
Q: What do you see as the latest trends in China’s auto market?
A: We are in the middle of digitalization and internal connectivity. China is in a leading position for new kind of models for the world. China is already at full speed for things that are not ready in Europe or the US. We have seen how Chinese startup brands and other companies are doing things we only dreamt of. China is completely embracing the trend, and we are excited and looking forward to working on some progressive ideas.
Q: Compared with other Nissan's car owners around the world, how are Chinese customers unique?
A: It is an interesting mix because there is a contrast. For the exterior or silhouette of the cars, Chinese consumers tend to be a little more traditional, while the details are very high tech. Everything that represents progress, which is technology, is on the roads in China. When you get inside the car, the level of screens, connectivity, voice recognition, voice commands, sunroof, windows, abilities for iPhone to engage with your car are all ahead of other markets. Connectivity is much greater in China than in any other part of the world. Chinese customers simply love these things and riding the waves of progress in the automotive world.
Q: Why did Nissan decide to set up its latest design center in Shanghai?
A: Times are changing and with the constant development of China, Nissan needs to adjust to the new digital age. Shanghai’s embrace of cultural diversity attracts creative talent from all over the world, making it a growing center of innovation. Shanghai’s creativity will help Nissan build on our 14-year design history in China to create an even better future of exciting designs for our customers.
Q: Which car models will be designed from here?
A: The design center in Shanghai is currently working on a few electric models. There are more than one new electric car models in progress. This is part of Nissan’s electric vehicle expansion. Nissan is targeting to develop eight electric vehicles worldwide by 2022, and China is the largest electric vehicle market in the world. So you can imagine the number of electric vehicles coming this way.
The design center also needs to maintain car models, like our two sedans called Sylphy and Altima, which are undergoing minor changes. When we bring global models into China, sometimes we have to make adjustments for Chinese customers. For example, there is a tendency -- even for sports-utility vehicles in China -- to have a more luxurious feel compared to a more rugged, working feel in North America. Nissan Design China is always working with the American studio to find the balance. In addition, the design center has already won a project that will do design work for INFINITI brand, which will be launched in 2021.
Q: Apart from designs for electrification, will work done here involve autonomous driving vehicles and connectivity features?
A: In China, connectivity and autonomous driving are definitely coming next. Our connectivity work will be done in Shanghai and Guangzhou. The needs of Chinese customers tend to be very different and more demanding than the needs in North America or Japan. For autonomous driving and connectivity, the design work we do here has more to do with the graphics. The designers are also heavily involved in user experience.
Q: How many people will work in the Shanghai design center?
A: The center now has about 50 creative staff and plans to increase the number to 80 by 2020. Almost all will be Chinese, with a few from overseas. The talent in China tends to be more digital. As a result, the level of excellence differs. We have 30 digital modelers in Shanghai. The staff work on digital models for the cars, films and movies, basically all forms of digital arts. Young Chinese talent seems to be more advanced in digital arts, and with this focus on what they love, they are great at what they do.
Q: What other Chinese car brands might you be watching?
A: There are more than 100 startups in China’s auto market. It’s a very energetic landscape here. China is so exciting and has become a place where we can experiment. Some of the startups are doing competitive cars with very charming connectivity. I think they are doing some very clever things. Apart from the electric car startups, I also notice that method of car purchases in China is changing. Nobody is using cash in China. The experience of living, buying and using a car is so different. In Silicon Valley, they dream for things to happen 10 years from now, but China makes it happen the next day.