Q&A with Klaus Busse

14 September 2016 | by Nick Gibbs

He grew up on a farm in Germany, studied design at the UK’s Coventry University and has spent the bulk of his career working in the U.S. Now Klaus Busse is in Turin, Italy for his most challenging task yet: overseeing design for six of FCA Fiat-Chrysler’s Italian-born brands, including Fiat, Alfa Romeo and Maserati. After moving to the States to work for DaimlerChrysler, Busse stuck with the American brands when they switched to Fiat ownership and rose to head of interior design for Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep and Ram. Under his watch, he injected flair and quality into previously outclassed interiors, winning awards for those of the Jeep Renegade and Chrysler Pacifica among others. Six months into his new job, Car Design News speaks to him at the Goodwood Festival of Speed about his plans for his new brands and for the Centro Stile design centre. 

Alfa has such a fantastic heritage. What relationship do you see the brand having with the past?
One of the first things we did we went to Arese to see the [Museo Storico Alfa Romeo] museum and spent some value time there discussing it as a team, looking back at what we have and how that might possibly influence the future.

Anything catch your eye?
In that museum, what doesn’t catch your eye? The 33 Stradale, you look at it and you need a cigarette.

Alfa Romeo 33 Stradale 1967

How big is your team in Turin?
It’s large but I won’t say the exact number.

Are you hoping to increase it?
Right now I’m not reviewing the size. Clearly I’m looking at ways to improve the organization, it’s not about reducing or add people.

What’s the difference between studios in Turin and the US?
In the US I was focused on the interior for 5-6 brands, so similar to now. My responsibility has doubled, but the process of designing a car is very similar for both sides.

Is there anything you think worked well back in the States that you’ll bring to Turin?
It something we’re talking about a lot. Many things the team is doing wonderfully and we’re definitely looking to implement things we learnt in Italy to the US. We’re looking at both organisations and trying to create efficiencies, maybe efficiency is the wrong word, but we’re learning from both and picking the right procedures.
But there are certainly things you’d want to keep separate.

Previously Fiat brands have worked very closely with the styling houses. Would you consider that again?
I’ve started visiting those houses in Turin, but certainly the environment has changed. Very few are still independent. It’s too early to say whether we will collaborate with them. It’s just to learn about the opportunities and to know that if we need to we could.

Which ones did you visit?
I’d prefer not to say. I will eventually visit all of them.

Would lack of independence be an issue?
You have to be aware of it and also consider what sort of project you could do with such a partner. We’re not at a point to decide yes or no.

What would make you collaborate again?
I have a capable and talented team so there’s not urgency to jump to any conclusion. The talent in Centro Stile is absolutely amazing, not just human capital but actual machinery. Over the last couple of years Centro Stile was severely upgraded with a lot of new technology.

Like what?
I can’t tell you but I am coming into a machine that has fantastic human talent.

Is there a limit to how far you can go with the Fiat 500?
It’s something we’re thinking about. I can’t give any suggestion
Olivier Francois [CEO of Fiat brand] has given a clear perspective on Fiat representing functional and emotional side, with Panda being the functional side and 500 range and the 124 Spider on the emotional side. That’s a wonderful way to summarize the brand, it’s not one size fits all.

How are you finding Goodwood? First time here?
Yes. In fact this year was my first time at Mille Miglia, first time at Villa D’Este. I’m speed dating European car culture.

What do you make of Goodwood’s motor show function?
That’s one thing that surprised me very much. It’s something I’ve already seen in Pebble Beach. More and more you have a brand presence. It’s a beautiful way to do a motor show, you’re not stuck in a convention centre, you’re got beautiful displays of cars, 5 minutes later you have race track, you have car shoppers and car enthusiasts. It’s exceeding all my expectations,

What is your view on motor shows?
It’s a really interesting debate when you see how motor shows have changed over the last few years. For me the purpose has been the same, the motor show is the most efficient way to see what’s going on the industry.

What are the big conversations in design right now?
Autonomous car is what everyone’s talking about. [In June] I visited the RCA’s annual degree show, out of the projects maybe 1-2 cars were self driven. The rest were autonomous. One project already started looking at the era after autonomous driving. That was a beautiful thought process, because the designer asked, do you have to retrain human beings to drive cars?

What did they imagine had happened?
He rightly observed a trend where prosthetics have become almost cool. [He took] this idea of man-machine physical integration and used some of that technology to teach you how to drive a car. For example a microchip implant, which could recognize hand movement and steer a robotic hand. It could either tell you what to do with the car, or you could do it yourself. It was interesting someone was thinking about it.

What does an automonous, car-sharing future look like?
My head is not so much focused on how it looks. We have enough people looking at that aspect. The challenges are the handover process from self-driving to autonomous. The styling part will be resolved very quickly. The design part is collaborating with engineers, with HMI, with lawmakers, which will help us define that critical handover process. For a lot of concepts at some point you have to tell the driver, ‘okay, 3,2,1, it’s you again’. Handover is the fascinating part that needs to be very, very carefully looked at.