Mr Jelani Hydar Aliyu, a Nigerian who designed the Chevrolet Volt, a state-of-the-art electric car, in this interview, tells the story of his life and the (MFR) National Honour Award he recieved. Excerpts:
How did you feel when you learned you would be awarded the National Honour?
The very first thing that I felt was actually pride, the pride to be a Nigerian. Words cannot explain how happy I am and how proud I am to be from Nigeria. The way I see it, this is an award not just on an individual, but it is an award to a story that began long time ago. So, this is a culmination of a story that began quite a while back. It was an award not just to myself but to my family and all the people that have contributed to making it possible for me to have come this far.
How did you begin to draw and what’s your inspiration?
I started drawing as far back as I can remember. I have been drawing probably since I was able to pick up a pencil, hold a sheet of paper and start doodling and drawing things, people, cars and anything around me. And I got a lot of support from my parents, my brother. My father and brother, whenever they would travel away they would buy a lot of magazines and other materials that helped me and helped my imagination.
Also in particular, a family friend and relative, Sanusi Babagoro, really played a great role in helping me develop my talent. I remember he would spend a lot of time with me encouraging me, helping me develop my talent and we talked about many, many things. He really played a great role in what I have become.
At what point in your life and career did you have your break?
Well, I think there are three. The first would be at school when I really got admitted into the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, Michigan, United States so that was a major point, I had always wanted to do car design, so getting admission to that college was really the first big step into becoming a car designer. The second would be getting employed with General Motors as a car designer and the third point was coming out with the design of Chevrolet Volt, which happened as a result of working in the Advanced Concept Studios, where the major future vehicles are conceived. So, those were the three major points in my career...
How did General Motors identify your talent?
Well, every year when students graduate, the companies come looking for people they would like to hire, so we put up our thesis and designs, and they would come and look at them. We would talk to them and they looked at our work, then they would decide on whom to hire. So GM came and a lot of other companies also came and they were impressed with what I had done and GM decide to give me an interview which led to a job offer.
How many awards or recognitions have you received as a result of this endevour?
Well, there were some instances of recognition at school based on the projects we did with other companies. But most of them were after the design of the Chevrolet Volt…
What is your message to the Nigerian youths?
My message to them would be to really understand what they are good at. That’s the key to success. Understand what your talent is and do all you can to develop that. Secondly, try to identify people in your family, in your community that can help you get there. Really, put all your efforts into the things you are good at.
Traditionally, in terms of human development it is okay, you are good in ABC, but you are not good in EFG, so maybe you should not spend more time on the things that you are not good at so that you could bring them up to par. Well, what that does is at best, it makes you mediocre. So, now you are good at something you don’t really want to do and you didn’t put a lot of effort into what you could have been great at.
So, my advice is to identify what you are good at - not also neglecting the other stuff - and put all your efforts in it so that you would be the best that you can be. The things you are not so good at let someone else cover that area, so that together each person will play his or her role to bring the society up, the nation up, the world up. But concentrate on what you are good at, usually it is the things that you find yourself wanting to do without anybody pushing you to do them. And then never give up, no matter what the challenges are.
What do you think would be the future of automobile design?
The ultimate is really rich and very far. My degree in college is in Industrial Design, and I majored in Transportation Design. And when you look at Industrial Design it is about, they say, it’s a tool for economic growth. It’s about understanding the challenges the people face every day and coming out with solutions to them.
Transportation and car design happen to be part of that. As we move into the future, definitely there will be more fuel-efficient vehicles, more electrical vehicles, vehicles that are kind to the environment; vehicles that don’t necessarily use fossil fuel, but beyond that there are probably going to be things that you can’t even imagine.
There is a lot of development in robotics, who says in the future we will not...right now we have cars that are increasingly more computerized. You go into a car now, it has a lot of gadgets and sensors and gives a lot of information. I see us as going beyond driving cars that are computerized into computers as movers, because it’s all about technology, more software, more integrated systems.
So the vehicles of the future will be more in tune with the environment and in tune with the system, a lot of development is being done in autonomous vehicle, whereby the car just takes you to where you want to go. With global satellite navigation systems now we won’t be too far...right now there are cars that sense another car that's near, in front of you and breaks for you, cars that park themselves for you. So, in the future it wouldn’t be surprising that you would get into some type of machine, you tell it where you want to go and it takes you there...
But how full-proof and safe would this technology be?
It will be very, very safe because the technology now is getting more sophisticated. Right now with the GPS systems it gives you direction, it tells you how to get to any spot, it knows the road and it tells you everything. And there is a lot of work being done to hook to satellite systems with vehicle-drive systems. So, it will be safe and I am sure before it goes to the public there will be a lot of testing to it.
Who is your role model?
My two biggest role models have been my dad and my mum. Alhaji Haidara Aliyu and Hajiya Hauwa’u Aliyu. My father was an educationist and after he retired he played a big role in the mid-90s as Nigeria was going back to democracy and he was one of the national electoral commissioners. So, he played a significant role in ensuring that there were really free and fair elections that time.
So I derive inspirations from him in how to deal with world challenges. He loves reading a lot. I learnt that from him and he had a library, going through encyclopedias and a lot of books he had collected over the years. And that opened up a lot of the world to me in terms of understanding what was happening out there.
And then, our mother was really a wonderful mother. Right from the start, she brought us up to really know what was good and what was not; how to relate with people and the importance of relationships and the importance of being good to the world and living in harmony with people close to you and the world in general.
What are your hobbies?
Well, my hobby is my work, outside my work I like reading.
You are just arriving from the United States so we want you to give comparison of life in the two climes?
Each country has its beauty. I grew up here in Nigeria, and what fascinates me here is really the culture and how inter-connected socially people are – how close people are. So, the bottom-line is wherever people are they do the best they know how. So when things don’t work it’s hard, over the years I am beginning to find it hard to blame the individual.
People always try to do the best they can, sometimes the system isn’t set up… I strongly believe that some of the challenges faced in Nigeria are not because of an inherent human lack of capability. I truly believe some of the reasons why things don’t work here is because they are not meant for this part of the world.
For example, some technologies find their way here as conceived and created for other parts of the world where the temperature and climate are totally different. So a system not meant for but that was transplanted into a very humid and hot climate may need maintenance that is probably beyond human capability. So, if a system doesn’t work in Africa it wasn’t meant for Africa.
But an interesting thing happening is technology has a way to go beyond some of these challenges, and we are beginning to see that. I remember when I first came to the United States for my undergraduate studies to call my people back home, that was before the cell phones, it was very difficult. I had to stay up till about 2am or 3am, dialing, re dialing, until I would finally get through, and I would talk for just five minutes because it was too expensive, and at times it would come on and off, and everybody would have to gather at one place so I could talk to everyone. Now with cellular phones, I can pick up the phone and call anybody.
So twenty years ago the technology was not meant for the climate or our culture and there was little penetration of land lines to people, but now with new technology we have more connectivity and it’s cheaper and more effective. The same thing I believe is going to happen with electricity, somebody will come up with a new technology and it’s already happening with solar energy.
Imagine solar panels to be so cheap that it takes a couple of hundreds of naira to put on your roof and anybody can afford it; the sun is always there – no need for central power systems, anybody could have his or her own power. The same thing could happen to transportation, there is a new technology that could make a car for a couple of thousands of naira or new road networks that make it easy to construct and there would be no need for maintenance. So through technology a lot of the problems in Africa would be solved.
What we need to do now is to identify who the talented people are among the youth that can be nurtured and tutored; how can we identify these youths, and some of us who are a little bit older help them get through these new technologies? There is this invention that someone did, a water filter, very cheap. You can take any water, no matter how polluted and then purify it. It’s a simple technology, not complicated nor energy intensive technology – but it’s just a nano technology filter and the way the elements are made with holes that bacteria cannot pass through.
Just take some dirty water pour it through the filter and you have purified water. You keep out all the bacteria and virus out of the water. I hear that in Kenya, and here too, people are coming up with solutions and programs for computers and cell phones for African applications…if you take an individual you put him in front of a computer in New York, and you take another individual and put him on a similar computer in, let’s say Dogon Daji, Sokoto State, those two people will have the same capability. The computer levels the playing field, so the more we invest in technology, I am not talking about pouring billions of dollars, but understanding that potential and letting our youths lose on it, it will be amazing.
They would do things I can’t even think of. Because every generation comes up with new things, my child… sometimes we can’t believe it, my wife and I will buy a new phone and without going through the manual our daughter and son can very easily figure out how it works. So lets take advantage of that. I am not saying there aren’t other ways, but technology will really help us move forward more than we can imagine.