Chrysler, the brand once the foundation of the Chrysler Corporation and today known mostly for its Pacifica minivan, is about to lead parent company Stellantis into the future as the tech brand. A year ago, no one would’ve bet you that Chrysler would be the turnaround story to watch. Down to just two distinct products and long short on resources and attention, the nearly 100-year-old brand was an odds-on favorite to get cut following the FCA-PSA merger that would become Stellantis.
A month later, though, new CEO Carlos Tavares made it clear Chrysler, along with Fiat and Peugeot, were central to the new combined company’s heritage and safe from the chopping block. The question then became: Now what? Less than a year later, we have the answer, and it’s previewed neatly by the Chrysler Airflow Concept.
While the Airflow Concept won’t go into production as-is, Chrysler brand CEO Chris Feuell tells MotorTrend it’s an “example” of a future fully electric SUV coming by 2024. That vehicle won’t be a production Airflow and may not carry the Airflow name, but it will carry the new styling language and, more importantly, the advanced technology previewed by the Airflow Concept.
Accessible, Not Expensive
“Accessible innovation” is how Feuell describes Chrysler’s future market positioning. She’s not looking to move the brand upmarket, but rather to bring advanced technology to middle-class buyers.
“In my opinion,” she said, “Chrysler has not yet earned credibility as a luxury brand. It has a lot of great features and design elements that position it more as a premium brand and that’s a good place to be. I don’t see us immediately going head-to-head with Cadillac and Audi.”
Rather than compete on both luxury and technology, Chrysler will focus more heavily on the latter. The brand will be the first to put Stellantis’ new STLA Brain and STLA SmartCockpit technologies. Brain is the cloud-based technology that will connect all future Stellantis products to the internet allowing for everything from streaming video to video chat to over-the-air software updates. SmartCockpit is the physical hardware, the screens and computers running them, that you’ll use in the vehicle.
“Tech-forward, clean mobility, on-road performance, and comfort” are how Feuell describes Chryslers of the future.
You can already get Amazon Fire TV in your Chrysler Pacifica today, which allows you to stream video and get information from Alexa, but the company envisions far more. For starters, Chrysler envisions screens at each seat, and it wants them to be individually customizable and able to share content with other passengers. Additionally, cameras at each seat will allow for video chats and conferencing on the go.
In order to keep the cabin from becoming a shouting match, directional audio and screen filters will ensure that you only see and hear what’s going on at your screen, not what other passengers are watching even though they’re just feet away. Unless of course you want to share with other passengers.
Expanding The Tent
To go anywhere, first Feuell has to change where the company is today.
“Chrysler today is very rooted in family,” she said. “Where we’re going is transformation. We want to represent the startup culture and energy in Stellantis. Chrysler develops the tech and brings it to market first.”
That’s not to say she wants to leave families behind. The Pacifica minivan and its predecessors are a big part of Chrysler’s heritage and its customer appeal, and Feuell hasn’t forgotten that. She just wants to update what family means at Chrysler. After all, she says, our understanding of family has grown over the years to include blended and same-sex families, and these days can also include close friends.
“Our core segment is a new definition of family,” she said. “Moving people, communities, groups of friends; the definition of family has expanded and so can Chrysler’s.”
Tech Isn’t Just Screens
Future Chryslers will also lead the company’s efforts to reduce waste and emissions in the manufacturing process. In addition to cleaning up its factories, Chrysler will also employ recycled and renewable materials in its vehicles. And of course, by switching entirely to electric vehicles, Chryslers will no longer create localized pollution as they drive down the road.
Autonomous Tech Is Coming
The hot new tech isn’t just for passengers, either. Stellantis has partnered with BMW to develop SAE Level 3 semi-autonomous driving technology. Level 3 is a step above where we’re at today, which allows the driver to take not only their hands off the wheel but their eyes off the road until the car requests you take over driving. While the Airflow Concept is fitted with the technology, Chrysler hasn’t committed to a date for bringing it to market yet.
Meanwhile, Stellantis continues to work with Waymo on Level 4 and Level 5 autonomous vehicles. (Level 4 is fully autonomous but still has a steering wheel and pedals, Level 5 has no human controls.) Waymo has in the past used Chrysler Pacifica minivans for its test fleet, but has recently announced a deal with Zeekr, a start-up brand from Volvo parent company Geely, for a purpose-built autonomous taxi that looks an awful lot like a minivan. Feuell says this isn’t the end of Chrysler’s collaboration with Waymo, but rather Waymo expanding the number of companies it partners with.
Customer Education Is Crucial
Feuell sees the transition from today’s Level 2 technologies to Level 3 and 4 happening in the next five years, and generally at lower speeds at first. She recognizes the need for consumer education on how these systems work and what they can and can’t do and says Chrysler is looking into all the ways to get the message across. The answer will certainly include dealers, but could also incorporate experience centers (showrooms that demonstrate the brand, technology, and vehicles but don’t sell them) and online tutorials.
Teaching dealers and product experts the technology and communication strategies is key, she says, as is continuing education for both brand representatives and the consumer. In other words, the day you buy the car won’t be the last time anyone explains to you how it works, especially in a world where over-the-air software updates can add new features and capabilities anytime, anywhere.
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