Despite a drop in popularity, minivans are roomy and versatile, and may just be perfect autonomous vehicles.
For the past 15 years, the Knoche family minivan has been frozen in traffic half a mile from the White House.
The Dodge Caravan with the snub nose and the faux finish has a prime spot, along with a 199-ton locomotive, in a Smithsonian exhibit on the history of transportation in America.
“I liked that wood grain, for sure. Now it’s kind of corny,” said Gary Knoche, who was with his parents, Fred and Mary Ann, when they brought the van home in the mid-1980s. “I remember saying, ‘That looks good.’ “
Now, the once-mighty minivan — overshadowed by the SUV, vessel of dad jokes and soccer-mom cliches, host of self-deprecating bumper stickers (“Zero to 60 . . . Eventually!”) — could be clawing its way off the museum floor and into an unexpected starring role in the future of transportation.
Tech firms are spending billions to develop the brains for self-driving cars, and minivans offer what some consider the perfect body for a transplant.
“The platform of that minivan is ideal. It’s an oblong block on four wheels,” said Timothy Papandreou, a former chief innovation officer at the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency who also worked at Waymo, a leading self-driving firm. “It’s familiar and it’s safe. It’s not scary. It’s not a Mustang or Corvette . . . It’s a minivan.”
Its humdrum yet roomy shape can fit enough people to make driverless taxi services profitable, or can easily be rejiggered for autonomous deliveries, the thinking goes. In May, Waymo said it will buy up to 62,000 minivans — descendants of the Knoches’ early Chrysler model — to build its driverless fleet. The company plans to start carrying paying passengers later this year in Arizona.
But the vision offered by boosters of driverless technology — including nearly flawless computer software besting all-too-human drivers; broadly replacing individually owned cars with ride-sharing apps and robotaxis; and a new era of reduced congestion and pollution — would require not only solving major technological challenges, but also sweeping changes in Americans’ consumer behavior and driving culture.
A brief history of the minivan
Chrysler first unleashed the minivan on the nation in 1983, and the practical workhorse carried Fred Knoche to his Detroit locksmith shop, Gary to hockey practice and millions of American families and their growing loads of stuff where they needed to go.
“The minivan is a little bit like blue jeans with Lycra — incredibly comfortable, but not particularly stylish,” said Peter Liebhold, a longtime Smithsonian curator who researches industry and technological change. “You had a little bit of room to move around.”
Chrysler’s designers came up with a relatively low-slung van that still had lots of space, headroom and legroom. And passengers could reach a third row of seats without having to climb over the back bumper, as kids did in station wagons. It was a thrilling stretch of innovation for those who had spent years making more mundane tweaks to existing cars.
“They’re always just new wrinkles in sheet metal from the previous year. So here was a new concept,” said Burton Bouwkamp, 91, head of product planning for Chrysler in the 1970s when the idea was being worked up. “That was pretty exciting to us.”
They were pretty exciting for many. Until they weren’t.
The minivan was an immediate hit, and Chrysler’s sales peaked at more than half a million a year during much of the 1990s. By 2017, however, they were less than half that, toppled by the SUV; its more carlike cousin, the crossover; and changing tastes. Fiat Chrysler Automobiles still holds the top spot in the U.S. market, according to the company. But minivans make up just 3 percent of the industry.
For curators at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, which gets nearly 4 million visitors a year, the Knoche family’s blue-gray minivan “really transcends just being a vehicle,” Liebhold said. “I mean, everything about it is perfect.”
Liebhold marvels at the mundane, including all its cupholders. It is also a window into a particular time, place and population. “It is a big piece of the American story in the ’80s and ’90s,” Liebhold said.
A new future for the old vehicle?
And now Knoche’s steel-and-glass specimen in the Smithsonian may offer insight into what comes next.
Waymo says the hybrid Chrysler Pacifica minivan is “the perfect platform for ride-hailing” because it’s safe and has “power-sliding doors and roomy, versatile interiors that can accommodate large groups.” The high-voltage battery can also power the self-driving sensors and computers.
Waymo’s competitors, however, aren’t convinced of Americans’ long-lasting love for the minivan. General Motors is building its driverless strategy on a version of the five-seat electric Bolt EV hatchback. Tesla says its Model 3 is the “car of the future” and eventually will be able to join a driverless fleet “just by tapping a button” on the Tesla app.
An Uber spokeswoman said it is too soon to tell what kind of car will dominate the driverless market. The company is working with Toyota to upgrade Sienna minivans, but also is using Volvo SUVs. Even Waymo is hedging its bets, saying it also will purchase up to 20,000 electric Jaguar SUVs for its driverless ambitions.
“The minivan is not the car of the future,” said Alan Hall, a Ford spokesman, adding that Waymo is “making do with a vehicle that was designed and built for personal use.”
Hall said Ford will design and build its own fleet specifically to carry paying passengers and make deliveries, sometimes at the same time. It will be a mix of minivan, van and truck, “but with some comfort features of sedans,” he said. The company has yet to unveil its creation, slated for production in 2021.
Waymo says its “business model is to build the driver” and put it wherever makes sense.
Most intriguing for some transportation planners is the possibility that driverless minivans, or their close relatives, could replace single-passenger cars and save space on clogged roads.
“Imagine if Uber and Lyft had 50,000 of these vans available for pooling and shared rides,” said Papandreou, who founded Emerging Transport Advisors after leaving Waymo this summer. But he says marketers may need to work some magic with the name.
“Everybody looks down on themselves. ‘I’m no longer sexy, I’m no longer cool,’ ” Papandreou said. “Maybe we need to change the word ‘minivan’ to something else.”
Toyota calls its minivanesque concept shuttle the e-Palette, evoking an artist’s imagination. The autonomous and electric walk-in vehicles might be transformed into a rolling pizza kitchen, personal shoe store or casino, the company said.
Chrysler’s futuristic minivan concept is likewise not called a minivan. It’s an electric “family transportation vehicle,” with three rows of track-mounted, movable seats, called the Portal. “Designed by millennials for millennials,” the company says.
It’s understandable that companies might shy away from the word’s fuddy-duddy baggage. Being a running sight gag — as the now-discontinued Oldsmobile Silhouette minivan was in the mob comedy “Get Shorty” — doesn’t do a lot for a modern image.
But Papandreou says minivans and their minibus bigger brothers are already cheap and ubiquitous, even in their “non-automated, nonelectric, not-networked” form. That’s not lost on autonomy advocates. “That platform is so flexible,” Papandreou said.
Transportation has been defined by disruption, the Smithsonian’s Liebhold said. The minivan carved itself a place in that history by tapping Americans’ love for efficiency and productivity. Now autonomy is facing its test. Will drivers really hand over their keys to robots en masse, whatever “family transportation vehicle” comes next?
“Walking worked fine, but then people got horses. Trains get invented, and people get rid of them and start using buses. Trolley cars are wonderful, and then people start using automobiles,” Liebhold said. “It’s not like any one of the things was the perfect thing. Needs change. The technology changes. It just continues to morph.”