Elkann: “huge pride” for 120 years of Fiat. The automotive industry faces a new challenge of innovation - La Stampa

Elkann: “huge pride” for 120 years of Fiat. The automotive industry faces a new challenge of innovation

12/07/2019 00.39.00

Elkann: “huge pride” for 120 years of Fiat. The automotive industry faces a new challenge of innovation

The chairman of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles outlines the future of cars: electric, connected and self-driving

MAURIZIO MOLINARI11 Luglio 2019TURIN. «Cars already have on board more technology than smartphones. We have the opportunity to turn them into an engine of innovation by changing them in three directions: electric traction, connection, and self-driving».  

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On the day Fiat celebrates 120 years, its chairman John Elkann speaks about the «record results of our company», looks ahead to the challenges offered by new technologies and comments the projects he is leading «because companies that don’t have the courage to change are doomed to disappear».

Fiat turns 120: how is it doing and what does this represent?«120 years represent an enormous step for us because only a few companies in the world have such longevity. It’s huge pride. I remember when in 1999, we celebrated 100 years of Fiat, whose board I had joined in 1997. I have lived through this period intensely, and today our company is strong like never before: with around 200,000 people employed in more than 100 factories and 46 research centers, at the end of 2018 revenues totaled 110 billion euros, with a net profit of 3.6 billion and a positive cash flow. Under the current plan, these results are expected to grow further, making FCA one of the largest car makers in the world, operating in 135 countries with 13 brands. Fiat 500 has hit record sales: 6 million vehicles».

What makes Fiat stand out?«FCA is a company culturally ready for the challenges of the new era: innovation is part of the DNA of our business as much as of our commitment. At the same time, we have strong roots. This year at the Mirafiori plant, which turned 80, we inaugurated the Heritage center, where people can admire the vehicles we produced over the past 120 years. Also at Mirafiori, we will install today the first robot to make the electric Fiat 500 car».

The legacy from the past and future challenges are tied together in the sign of change. It all began in Turin, at the end of the 19th century. How important is the balance between Italian roots and global alliances?«The automotive industry went through an important transformation in the past century, especially between 1889 and 1908, when 100 car makers were founded, 57 alone in Turin, which became the capital of automotive, mostly because of Fiat’s success. Today with Chrysler, we are in another important city of the car industry, Detroit, as we participated in its relaunch in the past years.  For example, Jeep Renegade brings together our legendary manufacturing of small cars and a brand that has allowed us to grow worldwide. This shows how, by joining forces, you can achieve things that were unimaginable. This is the reason why Italian plants, which initially served only the domestic market, or maybe the European market, are now making vehicles also for the United States. It’s a formidable engine of growth. For example, those who ship the Jeep Renegade from Italy to North America have invested in increasing the number of ships. The decision to be in the world with our roots was a success. The possibility of having even more roots, as different as they can be like we have done with Chrysler, has allowed the tree to become much stronger».

In your recent speech at AMMA, in Turin, you traced a comparison between the origins of Fiat and what is happening in the car industry. Why?«Because we are looking at the next 20 years with the awareness of living through a period similar to the passage from the 19th to the 20th century. Today, like back then, new technologies are injecting enormous vitality in the car industry. And today, like yesterday, we are well positioned to seize these opportunities best. We are strong in manufacturing vehicles with low environmental impact, from biofuel in Latin America to electric in North America with 500 Generation One, a fully electric model, and the Pacifica hybrid model. We are also preparing to launch next year the 500 electric Generation 2.

There is also Concept Centoventi, which allows us to look to the future under the Fiat brand presented in Geneva early this year. There’s more: Pacifica Waymo is today the only passenger car in the world that is entirely autonomous».Let’s start with the electric car. What is your goal?

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«The electric 500 is in its second generation after the model made in America. Our goal is to redefine the category of small cars as we have always done at Fiat. 500 is the symbol of the small urban car, with the pride and the unique style of the Italian know-how, along with the most innovative technologies for the respect of the environment».  

What consumers is Concept Centoventi targeting?«Concept Centoventi, like our 120 years, comes from Fiat’s willingness to renew the challenge to democratize cutting edge technology, opening the mobility of the future to a broader public.It represents the evolution of cars seen as an electronic consumer good like the smartphones that live with us. Fiat Concept Centoventi can be designed, enriched, customized, in one word made unique by its owner at any time, also after buying it, adjusting it to the needs of the moment, the taste as well as economic possibilities. Customers can adjust the car’s autonomy to how many kilometers they need to drive. The exclusive “battery pack” system allows increasing the range, from a minimum of 100 to 500 kilometers, by simply purchasing or renting additional batteries that can be installed in a few minutes at the car dealer. Concept includes the Unconnected Market, or the possibility to use the dashboard to buy a pizza or pay at the gas station».

There’s also Pacifica Waymo. How will self-driving cars change our lives?«Pacifica Waymo shows the importance of being in America, where FCA is the market leader for minivans, a category that Chrysler pioneered and that today allows us to be a leader in the future robotaxi. We decided to work with the best like Waymo to make self-driving cars as it happens now in Arizona with Pacifica, currently the only functioning autonomous car in the world, as documented exclusively by La Stampa a few weeks ago».  

What are the consequences of such a commitment to innovation?«It made us appealing to other partners. Ours is a far-reaching commitment, as seen in the partnership with Samsung-Google, from the agreements with Aurora and Ten Cent in China to the projects with Enel X and Engie. These are concrete examples of the evolution of a group that is open to technologies and goes even beyond them».

How?«Innovation for us means looking at the world from a broader perspective, that includes our commitment to sustainability and the intention to help the youth develop their talent. The new “Science Gateway” that we are developing with CERN in Geneva will be a place where 300,000 people every year – students, but also families – can observe closely the laws that govern physics and science in general. The auditorium will be dedicated to Sergio Marchionne: it’s the best way to remember him and celebrate the uncontrollable strength of innovation that he strongly supported. It’s the same commitment to work of the Agnelli Foundation, through the several ongoing projects to improve Italian education as well as SEI, the new business school that helps the youth develop their business ideas – especially through technology – and which organized with 10 partners the recent Italian Tech Week. The goal is to have the courage to innovate and explore new horizons in technology that have a social impact and improve people’s lives».

What did turn cars from a product of the 20th century into a frontier of technological change?«The combination of three great evolutions that turned car manufacturing from something static into something dynamic, as it happened at the beginning. First: the transformation of combustion engines to reduce emissions. Second: connectivity and interconnectivity that changed cars into a giant smartphone. Third: autonomy, or the possibility to help people drive until becoming fully autonomous. In terms of complexity, if for people driving a car was like going to the moon, driving autonomous cars will be like landing on Mars».

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What role do robots have in your productive system?«We are on the front line of robotics with Comau, founded in Turin, and the inauguration today at Mirafiori of the first robot for the new electric 500 in the presence of COO Pietro Gorlier and local authorities. Robots are a complementary tool for our work as people. We are strong supporters of Cobots, or collaborative robots allowing the interaction between robots and people. In Italy, we have important centers of excellence such as the Sant’Anna di Pisa and the Italian Institute of Technology in Genoa».

What is the future impact of artificial intelligence?«Artificial intelligence means increasing computational capacity and has huge implications, in many fields, including automotive. AI is one of the reasons why we can think of self-driving cars and helping us move by avoiding traffic, increasing our safety and convenience from the elderly to children, the possibility of finding what you need but also to make along the route things we could not do before».  

Why do cars continue to embody the evolution of technology as they did at the end of the 19th century?«Because cars are going through an evolution similar to smartphones. We used them in a traditional way until technology changed them into the smartphones we use today, changing our way of being and living».

Let’s talk about the missed agreement between FCA and Renault: is this a chapter that can be reopened or is FCA looking in other directions?«We must be able to seize the right opportunities, as we did with Chrysler, which allowed us to use at best our capital to create more and better vehicles. The operation with Renault was designed in this perspective and had been welcomed as such. But mergers are complicated to do and manage. To continue, they need the right conditions, and it’s important to be able to say no when these are not there. As the merger with Chrysler was an act of courage, it was an act of courage to try with Renault».

How is the company changing from within?«Our CEO Mike Manley is doing a tremendous job. He’s a true leader, and he knows how to motivate his team and strengthen the group in all its parts. He has implemented many changes, including in the organization, attracting quality people from outside. For example, the general manager of Converse/Nike, Davide Grasso, who has joined Harald Wester at the helm of Maserati, Jeep head Christian Meunier, and Mark Stewart, the area manager of North America. Also, the internal promotion of skilled people, like the COO of Latin America, Antonio Filosa, and Turin-born Pietro Gorlier, in charge of EMEA and Mopar worldwide. We are led by the common belief of representing a company with a glorious past but also the ability to bring together people of different culture interested in building an even stronger future».

However, the Italian market is slowing and the latest data indicate a decline in sales.«We have never been stronger than today, we are a bigger company with more products and Italy, starting from Turin, has benefited from it. Despite the challenging market conditions in our country, we were able to invest 5 billion euros in Italy with a series of technologies that bring us to the forefront in the industry, with the launch of 13 new models and the addition of 12 electric versions of new and existing models. Here again, we are led by the same belief: companies without the courage to change are doomed to disappear. We decided to change».

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