Interiors Get Their Due – WardsAuto Interior Conference 2014

Get a bunch of guys in a room and invariably the subject of movie quotes will come up.  Stay long enough and it will eventually get around to Planes, Trains and Automobiles.  Such was my adventure trying to get to the 2014 edition of the Ward’s Auto Interior Conference.  Fly from San Jose? = No Problem.  Land at Chicago? = Not so Easy (#MajorThunderstorms).


After being diverted to Indianapolis to refuel we arrived in Chicago just before midnight.  Too late to catch the connecting flight, all the hotels were booked, and no rental cars on site.  So after a short 20 minute bus ride I was the happy recipient of a Chevrolet Spark, courtesy of the least helpful and unfriendly Thrifty employee on the face of the earth.  While the Spark may be a great city car, it was no match for the massive rain, windstorms and standing water I encountered.   5 hours later I crashed in Jackson MI (i.e. crashed (slang) = to sleep).  Continuing the trip Wednesday morning meant I arrived too late for the first Panels and Ed Welburn’s Keynote. So you can read about them here, on Wards site.

GM's Ed Welburn, Craig Sass and

GM’s Ed Welburn, Craig Sass and Helen Emsley pose with the new Corvette                            Photo: WardsAuto

A little about the WardsAuto Interior Conference for those who have never attended.  The conference is “all about designs and technologies that are shaping the Auto interiors industry”.  It is the one annual event where interior designers and suppliers do not take a back seat to auto exteriors.  And really, why should they?  In the past 5 years or so, no other part of the automobile has taken a bigger leap in quality, content and appearance than the interior.  Don’t believe me?  Check out the Rolls Royce Starlight Headliner assembly process at 1:44 of this video.

Rolls Royce Wraith   Photo: AACS

Rolls Royce Wraith Starlight Headliner                                                                                                Photo: AACS

 Two Ryans and a Wally – The Second Session

In the North American market you can choose between 6 full-sized pickups. so what are the odds that the Interior Lead on 1/3 of them would be named Ryan?    Perhaps Nate Silver can figure those astronomical odds.

Ryan Nagode     Photo: WardsAuto

Ryan Nagode, Chrysler Interior Design Chief                                                                                     Photo: WardsAuto

Ryan Nagode, Interior Design Chief for Ram, SRT and Fiat North America took us through some eye-opening facts on pickup trucks and provided additional evidence that an anthropology degree is helpful to auto designers.  Traveling to Texas the Ram team noticed that when ranchers towed cattle with their pickups, the pickup was “the cheapest thing they owned”.  A $75,000 pickup may not make sense until you realize they have more than $250k tied up in the trailer and cattle.  As a side note, were you aware there are more cattle in Texas than people in New Jersey?  But pickups are not purchased just for work anymore; 1500 buyers are split 25/75% between work and recreation.  Headvy Duty buyers are more traditional and split the other way.

Kenworth 76" Sleeper     Photo: Kenworth

Kenworth 76″ Sleeper                                                                                                                             Photo: Kenworth

Between the two Ryans, Wally Pelota, Design Director for Kenworth Trucks helped explain how different Class 8 trucks are from the more commonplace pickups.  The trucks are not just transportation, but also offices on wheels, a home away from home and the driver’s livelihood.  These factors raise some interesting design problems.  Even the door maps pockets are super-sized as they have a 300# load requirement.   Storage is at a premium because the truck cab may need to contain everything the driver needs for a week at a time.  And new storage design elements are needed as more women get their OTR (over-the-road) licenses.

Ryan Niemic, Ford Interior Design Manager    Photo: AACS

Ryan Niemiec, Ford Interior Design Manager                                                                                           Photo: AACS

Ryan Niemiec, Ford Truck Interior Design Manager presented the interior of the new F150; a tool for work and a tool for life.  The new 2015 version of the venerable F150 is still “built Ford tough, it’s just smarter this time.”  Ryan continued to discuss unique design features that came from customer clinics and direct observance of trucks in use.  For example, the flat floor in the cab rear was in direct opposition to conventional wisdom.  Ford found that customers preferred the flat floor to additional storage by way of a console.  Read more about these presenters here.


JoAnn Jung of Ford    Photo: Wards

JoAnn Jung of Ford                                                                                                                                      Photo: WardsAuto

Lunch and the Design Awards

During a very nice luncheon, WardsAuto presented awards for both the Interiors Student Design Competition and the 10 Best Interiors Awards.  The theme for the fifth annual Interiors Student Design Competition was to design a 2025 pickup interior.  JoAnn Jung of Ford presented the award as Keunhyuk Choi of CCS was the Grand Award Winner.  Tyler Charest and Dongsung Choi won the Innovation and EcoBlend awards respectively.

Mercedes-Benz S550      Photo: WardsAuto

Mercedes-Benz S550                                                                                                                               Photo: WardsAuto

WardsAuto presented the 10 Best Interiors at the show and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, General Motors and Hyundai/Kia had 2 winners each.  The 10 winners were:  Chevrolet Corvette Stingray and GMC Sierra Denali, Jeep Cherokee Limited and Chrysler 200C, Hyundai Equus Ultimate and Kia Soul +, Mazda 3, Volkswagen Golf GTi, Mercedes S550 and the Rolls Royce Wraith.  See pictures of the winners and nominees here.

Band of Brothers – Afternoon Keynote

No car company has improved their interiors faster than Fiat Chrysler Automobiles.  So, to give an overview of how that process happened, Klaus Busse, Head of Chrysler Interior Design brought us some words of wisdom.

Klaus Busse, Head of Chrysler Dodge and Ram Interiors     Photo: WardsAuto

Klaus Busse, Head of Chrysler Dodge and Ram Interiors                                                           Photo: WardsAuto

In perhaps the most entertaining presentation of the day, Busse invoked his German Heritage (while channeling Klaus Meyers and German obsession with mathematical uniformity) to give a Top 5 list of ways to invigorate your interior design.  The first was Design Sculptured Surfaces, a big change from the “grey boxes” of pre-2009 Chrysler interiors.  He encouraged the team to “be passionate about the details”.  #2 involved banning suits in the office, although Busse admitted he owned one that he used for weddings.  But really the second item was about the bankruptcy, which solidified the team as a “band of brothers” not because it was like war but because the group lived the same life of “where will I be in 10 days”.

Jeep Grand Cherokee     Photo: Chrysler

Jeep Grand Cherokee                                                                                                                                    Photo: Chrysler

Materials and Bio-mimicry was the third item covered as Busse described the process of finding a water-worn stone on the shores of Lake Michigan that was eventually scanned and used as the inspiration for the Grand Cherokee knob shown above.  When looking at various inspirational products, the Airsteam trailer was referenced where “the aluminum is not the decoration, aluminum IS THE TRAILER”.  Address the Senses was number 4 as the look, feel, sound and smell of materials took on increased importance.  Having a new partner in Fiat Group brought the prospect of new materials, like the leather from Poltrona Frau.  Finally, “Give it a Soul” was the last item on the list.  Busse explained that the Grand Cherokee had a copper-colored package inspired by the Grand Canyon.  There was so much authenticity in that internal story that Marketing adopted it and instead of calling it the premium package, it was called the Grand Canyon Package.  You can read more about this presentation here.

The Future of Luxury

Jeep combined with some suppliers to discuss The Future of Luxury in the last session of the day.    Pat Murray of Murray Design talked about the fact that “Happiness is Expensive”.  Olivier Boinais of Faurecia described luxury design as “eliciting emotion through sensory experiences”.

Robert Walker, Head of Jeep Interior Design     Photo: WardsAuto

Robert Walker, Head of Jeep Interior Design                                                                                    Photo: WardsAuto

But Robert Walker, Head of Jeep Interior Design explained the process in the most detail.  He expanded on Busse’s earlier presentation by describing how JEEP wants their ownership experience “to be truly genuine” with a “world inspired palette”.   People’s connection with their cars was confirmed by an AutoTrader survey that showed 36% wanted their car to go to a good home and 65% would like to spend some quality time with their cars before they go to a good home.  Although not German, Walker had his own Top 5 list – Attributes for Future Luxury.  1) Brand Heritage, 2) Ownership Experience, 3) Design and Craftsmanship, 4) Sustainable Colors and Materials and 5) Integrated Connected Technologies.


 If you would like to see some presentations from the event, go here.  

If ou want to see picture, go here.




About Frank Schwartz

Frank Schwartz is the founder of and Advanced Automotive Consulting Services, partner in The Middlecott Sketchbattle Experiment and serial entrepeneur. A long time automotive enthusiast, Frank started reading car magazines at the age of 8 and has spent 30+ years working inside the automotive industry. In his spare time Frank races with the Sports Car Club of America, spends time working on his numerous project cars and supports many local charities.
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