How Infiniti stopped aping Germany and learned to go bold

For over 20 years, Nissan’s Infiniti luxury brand has emulated the dominant German luxury automakers, but has struggled to create a unique identity for itself. Over the past few years, Infiniti has launched bolder designs under the direction of executive design director Alfonso Albaisa in an attempt to distinguish itself from the competition.

Digital Trends sat down with Albaisa at the 2017 New York Auto Show to talk about design, Infiniti’s new QX80 Monograph SUV concept, and how emerging technologies like electric powertrains and autonomous driving may change the way cars look in the future.

Digital Trends: How do you go about creating a cohesive design language for a car brand?

Alfonso Albaisa: That’s a very direct launching point for this discussion [laughs]. What happens normally when you come into a job is you immediately assess the portfolio. Then you first find out the renewal plan, it’s a bit boring part.

Then you start to select which one is going to be the icon, and you have to really take care in in identifying which one that is.

interview with alfonso albaisa infiniti design director
Alfonso Albaisa – Executive design director for Infiniti Motor Company

A lot of the thing with this question is convincing people to move from where they are today. Even if they’re frustrated with where they are today, they’re also understandably skeptical about where you’re going to take this.

So a lot of the stuff with changing a brand is storytelling, convincing, and showing examples.

Once you’re done with the talking and you have those key elements, how do you go about applying them in a uniform manner to different types of vehicles?

It’s a bit of policing and guiding. I don’t like too many rules. We’re always making show cars that show the purest form of our expression. That inspires my global teams. Sometimes people think show cars are just for external [impact]. Actually they’re not. The value for me is more internal, because we have a physical object that represents what we can do, what we should do. And then, because we have four studios, they all see it and, like musicians, they riff on that.

What do you think Infiniti is saying with design that other luxury brands aren’t? What makes you special?

I think that we have a sense of artistry and presence that’s a little different. We probably are a little bit bolder in shape and expression, of just limitless carrozzerie [an Italian term usually applied to hand-built car bodywork], a little bit more than others.

Engineering has taken that as their thing as well. So the body panels on the Q60, which are unusually deep and emotional, which is [something] currently others don’t necessarily have. On Q60, you mix that with the fact that you have 400 horsepower, so have technical excellence with this kind of artistry.

Is there a lot of push and pull with engineering as far as what you want to do as designers, versus what they feel is feasible?

“Our styling is not that superficial, in the sense that we’re celebrating manufacturing’s ability to stamp very deep panels.”

AA: I think naturally, because designers don’t have the technical background. Our relationship right now is good because we’re celebrating what they can do, in a sense. Our styling is not that superficial, in the sense that we’re celebrating manufacturing’s ability to stamp very deep panels. We telegraph this, we’re honest about it. So we don’t have a conflicting relationship.

Do you think alternative powertrains like electric or fuel cell will affect design in a big way?

For Infiniti, a little bit like Jaguar, probably. Both kind of have a silhouette link to big engines. Ours was the eight-cylinder. We came from this big hood, rear cabin, rear-wheel drive, and electrification is different.

We don’t have an electric car, we’re not talking about that now, but eventually we have to start to discuss [it]. Even before electrification, we have downsizing. I can imagine a day when a six [-cylinder engine] is not necessary. Because that’s just natural, it’s a domino. The eight went away, why? Because the six can deliver the same power.

interview with alfonso albaisa infiniti design director qx80 monograph 6

So one can assume that, by mixing that electric motor with internal combustion, in the future four-cylinders will have as much torque as an eight-cylinder. So then eventually you start to wonder why you have big hoods.

But the QX80 Monograph concept Infiniti unveiled here in New York has a very big hood. You describe it as focusing on the styling of future full-size SUVs. What are the key points you expect to carry forward into production models?

And also how to take the language. Because the language that we have today is a little bit lightweight, and concavity of surfaces give you a very agile sense, even with the big hood and stuff like that. The cars don’t appear ponderous. So one of the things we discussed with the team was, if the Q60 is Michelangelo’s David, we should do a car that’s more Rodin’s Thinker. That was the main job on that one: start the communication of more mass, more volume, power, but elegance.

Can we expect a new QX80 production model anytime soon?

Naturally. Always when we start talking about something, something is coming. I’m not saying a new one is coming, but there are a few cars left on the stage [indicating other cars on Infiniti’s NY Auto Show stand] that haven’t been redone.

Besides the application of Infiniti’s design language to that more unusual shape, one of the standout features on the Monograph is the pair of rearview camera pods. Can you tell about where the idea to integrate those came from, and is there any possibility they will be used on a production car?

That one is still in the hands of regulators, to be honest. Most of us are ready, and most of us do hint at how we would be solving that issue.

“We don’t have an electric car, we’re not talking about that now, but eventually we have to start to discuss [it].”

The technological next step is these cameras everywhere, because we’re doing that for autonomous anyway, and it’s essential. The amount of sonars and cameras on the car in the near future is really a multiple of today’s.

Also with that part [the cameras] was how to make aerodynamics and stuff like that, with a huge car. Because what’s happening with hybrids and other things is that size doesn’t matter anymore. In the past, people felt guilty about size because it’s inefficient… and “how do you park?” But now cars park themselves and you don’t have to bother with that. So all of the hurdles of big are gone.

You mentioned autonomous driving. Do you think that will change the way cars are designed in any significant way?

Yes, especially interiors. Also exteriors in the sense that—none of us are really showing this yet—but a car must signal to other cars that it’s in full autonomous [mode]. It’s not just a courtesy; people want to know that the person in the next car is not driving.

This probably will be done with lighting. It’s not going to be like hazards blinking, because that’s kind of also distracting. So we’re all going to have to figure out a way to show that the car is in autonomous [mode].

interview with alfonso albaisa infiniti design director qx80 monograph 7

Then also, when you’re inside the car, what do you do when steering wheels pull away, when you get comfortable, when you’re in autonomous [mode]?

So you anticipate cars where manual controls are redundant coming relatively soon, soon enough that you would need to start thinking about that?

In my world yes, because we’re three years ahead. The car will always need a way to very quickly resume human control. These ideas of steering wheels that retract, I’m not sure, really. How do you come back quickly?

At the end of the day, a car will jump out of autonomous [driving] when it doesn’t recognize where it is. That can be significant, but it can also be a minor thing, like you go through an area that has road construction, and it’s not picking up lanes, and a construction zone is no longer following the previous road data. So not only have you lost camera, but you’ve lost road data.

So the car will probably jump out, and if the steering wheel is somewhere else, that might be a problem.