AI: Friend or Foe of Chrysler Designers?

Stellantis North America Chief Design Officer Ralph Gilles aims for his team to exploit AI tools.

Dan Carney, Senior Editor

April 9, 2024

6 Min Read
Stellantis North America Chief Designer Ralph Gilles.
Stellantis North America Chief Designer Ralph Gilles.Stellantis

At a Glance

  • Designers are allowed to use AI design tools
  • Stellantis inputs its own designs to train the AI
  • AI won't replace design teams

Flamboyant Stellantis North America chief designer Ralph Gilles is the chief design officer for the Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep, Ram, Maserati, and Fiat Latin America vehicles. He brings his sensibilities as not only a designer but as a car enthusiast and racing driver.

But what does he think of rapidly emerging computer-aided design tools and their effects on his profession? Gilles posted a podcast discussion on the company’s YouTube channel mulling over these questions. We excerpted the relevant portions here:

Q: How has technology changed the way you and your team do their job?

Ralph Gilles: In my personal life, I'm kind of an early adopter by nature. I love tech myself. I geek out on sci-fi movies, you name it, I love it. I used to actually write software when I was a kid. I had a Commodore 64 the minute it came out, so there's a bit of that under my skin. I'm an artist first but I love I love all that stuff.

So, how it's changed. I think, again: early adopters in in the digital space. We started using Silicon Graphics machines, which helped us create 3D surfaces. If you imagine how cars are made today we still sketch them manually. We use clay. It was painful to balance a car, we did it manually.  Today we use milling machines which rely on surfacing which we get from scanning.

Related:Stellantis CTO Curic talks EVs

The big change, though, has been the computing power. Of course. Everybody knows that. As you know, your [mobile] device now has the power a tower computer did 10 years ago.

So that piece is moving so, so quick, and we're embracing it. We're constantly updating our surfacing software. Now the biggest thing that we're seeing is with online free 3D software like Blender and things like that, our designers can make 3D surfaces real-time. It's very intuitive. People pick it up within a couple of days. They're masters at it.

We can actually take that data and mill full-size clays if we want from it or give it to our professional services team to refine it. So we're using those skills. We're using ocular systems. We put on these goggles as you've seen from the gaming community, and we're able to literally immerse ourselves in it. We'll all throw a pair of goggles; the CEO of the company. I'll put one on myself. And we're in the same space for a virtual product that doesn't exist yet.

So we're embracing the latest and greatest. The traditional tools have been improving. It's a fascinating journey we've been on.

A lot of it buys us time. We've cut production down by over a year in some cases. And we're able to pick between our themes much less in a much different way and much more exciting, dynamic way.

Related:Stellantis Partners with Saft on a Better EV Battery Architecture

Q: These types of technologies have helped speed up the process. But does it actually make more work? Can you look at a hundred more iterations now than you used to?

Ralph Gilles: Absolutely. But it doesn't need to be that extreme. Typically in the good old days we’d have 100 stations easily we can do 100 pen sketches and pencil sketches. These used to be on paper. Today they're digitally done. We use screens to look at them. Sometimes we like them so much that we print them out and have them more in a more permanent way.

The AI tool is something that's probably only a few months into it. We actually have a dedicated AI team and that came from the bottom up. The designers were like, “Hey, we really like this tool, is it okay for us to use it?”

They were nervous because they thought it was cheating. It is the same story at school. I'm on the board of my alma mater. And we're debating, “Do we let the students use AI, because it is a fake?”

But at work we found a way, with Viscom’s help – we use their 3D software already -- we can actually load the AI with our own stuff. So we'll put in very light sketches that don't take very long to do with inputs that we want, whether, it can be in architecture, of a building, it can be a sculpture that we like, it could be another car from our past that we like and we asked the AI to blend them together.

Related:Stellantis Large EV Platform Claims 500-Mile Range

I'll be honest with you, I'm blown away. There's stuff the AI is generating, that we probably would have stumbled on and some of it you just throw away. But it is just amazing. You can generate two hundred, three hundred ideas and a good designer, a professional designer can sift through them so fast. So it's not that big of a deal to have more choices.

My daughter's in the animation world and the AI is really offensive to them because it's borrowing from hundreds of artists’ other work and trying to amalgamate it and it's a bit unfair. So there's concern there, and that's something as a design community we have to watch. Our designers know that it's not going to replace them. There's no way I'm going to trust AI to get rid of ten designers because I can do it with AI. That's not the point of it at all. It's just another tool in an amazing toolbox of tech.

Q: When you use AI in the design department, do you set up guardrails that it can only go so far or do only so many things?

Ralph Gilles: I'll tell you what, it's so new that we don't know what guardrails to put up yet. We’re letting it roll for now and letting our designers experiment openly with it and we'll see. Every week now I review some AI-generated stuff. The one thing I do ask is that they call it out.

I didn't mention the one thing I love about AI is the rendering capability. Because sometimes rendering is fun, but it's time-consuming and it's not value-added, actually. So by having AI render a surface quickly -- these surfaces look amazing! That actually is an “Easy Button” way but it's it is useful for pumping out more volume.

Q: Is AI globally accepted or are some regions more interested in it than others?

Ralph Gilles: No. In Europe, they dove into it really deeply and they like it as well. So what we've done across the globe, we've set up AI experts to train the others, so everyone is going to have access. I'm going to have an AI portal on my computer. I've asked everyone to embrace it, to understand it, because I think the better you understand it the better you can very effectively use it so that's the goal.

About the Author(s)

Dan Carney

Senior Editor, Design News

Dan’s coverage of the auto industry over three decades has taken him to the racetracks, automotive engineering centers, vehicle simulators, wind tunnels, and crash-test labs of the world.

Sign up for the Design News Daily newsletter.

You May Also Like