Hispanic Heritage Month: Alfonso Albaisa, Nissan's Design Director of the Future

After 24 years of working in every facet of car design, Cuban American Alfonso Albaisa now leads design teams at Nissan, where as a design director he oversees the Global Passenger Vehicles and Electric Vehicles division.

Albaisa has headed teams and projects for the current Nissan Maxima and the outgoing Altima, the Nissan Juke and the updated version of the Qashqai.

Today he is the man behind the Nissan Leaf, which claims to be the most efficient fully electric car to date.

How does a Cuban-American kid from the Everglades of Florida end up living in Tokyo, speaking conversational Japanese, and get himself appointed as a Nissan's Vice President?

Albaisa says he owes it all to the unwavering love and support of his parents and his humble acceptance of a precocious art and design talent.

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Albaisa avoided art in his early years. But when he attempted an Engineering career at University of Florida, it was clear from his 0.5 GPA this would not be his calling. It was his mother who suggested he take some art classes —he was on the Dean’s List by the end of the semester and transferred to Pratt Institute in New York, graduating with a Bachelor’s degree in Industrial Design.

At age 21 he was plucked from Pratt and recruited by Nissan.

It will not be unheard of for cars to go over a hundred miles fueled simply with electrical charge.

— Alfonso Albaisa

“The irony is, since my father was an architect, I grew up with a photo of the Olympic Stadium in Tokyo hanging in my room. To end up living and working here in Tokyo seems as if it were meant to be,” Albaisa says.

Working for Nissan in San Diego California, then London, and now Japan, Albaisa says his job is as much about helping to hone brand identity as it is about the new role of design. He’s a bit like the ambassador for the brand, inspiring investors and of course lending his design expertise to creating a great selling vehicle.

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates the Leaf model will get the equivalent of 92 miles per gallon on the highway and 106 miles per gallon in the city. The car needs to be charged with a 240-volt home charging dock; all you have to do is plug it in.

“It will not be unheard of for cars to go over a hundred miles fueled simply with electrical charge. But despite people’s frugality, they can be skeptical about new things. It’ll be a keeping up with the Jones’ kind of thing that’ll swing it. You see your friends driving a new kind of car, and it becomes infectious—a great paradigm shift,” he says.

Albaisa talks a lot about the smoothness and safety of the lifestyle of hybrid and electric cars. And this, coming from a man who enjoys the chaotic but calm lifestyle of living in Tokyo. He says he enjoys the gliding or floating quiet of a hybrid car. And the future cars running on hydrogen fuel cells -he says- will be even quieter then hybrids, at speeds of 80-90 miles per hour.

“The United States is behind countries like Portugal for example who have more of a conscienceless of renewable energy, and are on a mission to find vehicles that burn less coal,” he says.

Relieved to find a small sampling of Cuban cooking so far from his homeland, Albaiso talks animatedly about his favorite Cuban restaurant in Tokyo, La Bodeguita. “There are others, but this lady lived in Havana in the 70’s and 80’s, and she really knows the cuisine. She speaks Spanish and has the hand movements, it reminds me of Miami,” Albaisa says.

Albaisa is divorced and has three daughters. He travels from Japan back to California every three weeks to seem his daughters.

“As I’ve mentioned, I would be nothing without my parents, and so I feel the same responsibility to give my daughters the love and support they deserve,” he says.