DETROIT – The future of the car may be more about giving it a soul than making it drive itself, Ralph Gilles, Chrysler’s senior vice president-Product Design, tells attendees at the SAE Convergence conference here. 

Founded in 1974, the confab is aimed at transforming vehicles and the consumer experience through electronics.

“My cars are like my children and my family. I hate to think of a car as a commodity. The cool thing is the car keeps reinventing itself and it keeps up with the times. What we do at Chrysler is try to make cars as soulful as humanly possible and now giving a car a soul."

By giving a car a “soul” Gilles means giving a vehicle a personality that interacts both verbally and non-verbally with the driver and even anticipates his or her needs, like KITT, the modified Pontiac Trans Am in the 1980s TV series “Knight Rider.”

The concept of what makes a vehicle “cool” usually is shaped by experiences in childhood and adolescence, Gilles says, saying his own passion for fast cars was shaped by popular movies and TV shows of the 1970s and 1980s such as “Smokey and the Bandit” and “Knight Rider” as well as famous James Bond cars equipped with ejector-seats and missiles.

What makes tomorrow’s vehicles attractive to Millennials will be shaped by a new set of experiences, he says, but a well-conceived user interface that employs voice activation, augmented reality and other features can cross almost all demographic boundaries. A talking car that drives itself like KITT might resonate with Baby Boomer and Gen X buyers, but a good user interface in a vehicle also can connect psychologically with Millennial consumers much like smartphones do today, Gilles says.

And, even though voice-activation systems have been criticized a lot in the media lately, Gilles says the systems are making huge strides.

“Our voice-recognition software is getting there. Whoever is in that industry is doing an amazing job,” he says. “When my mother with her thick Haitian accent can direct her car to do things, it’s a really good sign. So VR is here to stay. And that’s going to be a huge part of the whole ‘KITT factor’ and making the car feel like your friend. You can talk to your car and tell it what you need it to do.”

Chrysler also uses a philosophy of “triple redundancies” that allow drivers to accomplish tasks three different ways, such as through a touchscreen, VR or simply by turning a knob or pushing a button.

Augmented-reality technology, combined with head-up displays, also will play a big role in connecting drivers more closely with their vehicles, Gilles says.

Another new trend in automotive will be open-architectures for various vehicle systems. The industry must work more closely with outside tech developers, he says. “We have to collaborate. If you can write apps for your smartphone, why can’t you write apps for your car? Of course, we have to proofread them a bit and figure out how to mitigate the risk.”

However, he warns engineers not to focus only on the needs of younger consumers. Older buyers have more money and are driving more than ever, he says. They also are continuing to drive at older ages. “Above 80 years old, people are driving even more,” he says. A recent clinic by Chrysler of drivers aged 75 years and older showed seniors still want to be mobile, but as they age they increasingly avoid driving in traffic, bad weather and at night.

“We can use this wonderful technology to give older people their mobility back,” Gilles says.

And Chrysler found older drivers are not afraid of new technology. “They really like technology, they just want it to be easy to use and intuitive,” he says. He adds that designing vehicles with the needs of seniors in mind often benefits all consumers because information displays and type fonts simply are larger and easier to read.

Automakers are not afraid or resisting the development of fully autonomous vehicles, he says, but there is a huge liability risk that will put mass production much farther out than proponents believe, he says. Six years ago, Gilles was invited to compete in an autocross competition with a Google autonomous car. Being an experienced racer, he was shocked that he was barely able to beat the car around the course. “Imagine what they have been doing since then. This is going to happen in my lifetime for sure,” he says.

Even so, Gilles is skeptical of how soon some think self-driving vehicles will be allowed to share roads with the rest of us.

“It isn’t so easy. It’s actually filled with peril to put that much technology in a car. And that’s what we’re very, very leery of today. We’re being careful. The automobile is not like your phone, let’s face it.”

dwinter@wardsauto.com