Ralph Gilles: How Chrysler Is Using Technology to Step on the Gas

by Brian Caulfield

Art and science. Design and technology. Style and substance.

These aren’t competing ideas, Ralph Gilles, Chrysler’s senior VP for product design, explained in his keynote at our GPU Technology Conference, focusing on how new technology has accelerated automotive design.

Starting with the Chrysler 300 – a much-acclaimed sedan introduced in 2003 – Gilles has led the design of a string of vehicles whose charismatic looks have revived not only Chrysler, but re-energized the entire auto industry.

Now, Chrysler is using computing muscle to accelerate the rate at which it can put new designs on the street, Gilles said.

“Detroit is among the largest consumers of the processing power that is being produced by companies like NVIDIA,” he said.

The result: Chrysler’s design process – already quick – is getting quicker. The Dodge Challenger, introduced in 2008, took just 22 months to design. The Dodge Dart, introduced this year, took just 18 months.

Credit new technologies, such as the ability to quickly build prototype parts using stereo-lithography, to test designs in virtual wind-tunnels, and to put together sophisticated digital displays using only software and off-the shelf parts.

Virtual wind tunnels are accelerating the automotive design process.

That’s quite an endorsement coming from a man who grew up with motor oil and modeling clay in his blood.

Growing up in Montreal in the early 1980s, Gilles was frustrated by the lack of good design he saw in the cars made at the time. So he began sketching out cars he’d like to drive. His sketches were so good his aunt sent one to then Chrysler CEO Lee Iacocca when Gilles was 14. Iacocca wrote back with a list of automotive design schools Gilles should attend.

By 1992, he was working at Chrysler as a designer.

It was a different time. Like other designers of the era, Gilles worked chiefly with pencils and modeling clay. By contrast, the latest generation of young designers works all digitally, modeling every aspect of a car’s interior and exterior using powerful workstations, Gilles said.

Thanks to powerful workstations and stereo-lithography prototype parts can be cranked out in just hours.
Powerful workstations and stereo-lithography make it possible to build prototype parts in hours.  

The changes go well beyond the design shop. Led by Chrysler CIO Scott Sandschafer, Chrysler is using computer to simulate everything from a cars performance to how it will perform in a crash test well before the first prototypes are built, Gilles said.

Those changes will only accelerate, Gilles predicted, as more and more technology makes its way into cars. Growing up, Gilles was a fan of the show Knight Rider, with its talking, self-driving car, KITT.

Now, thanks to Google, driverless cars are here – even if they’re not in showrooms. “I was crapping myself,” Gilles said of his recent test drive in Silicon Valley. “I don’t think it’s around the corner, but it’s coming.”

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