A fanciful 1950s artist rendering of a self-driving vehicle depicts a bubble-topped car that looks like it is from the flying-saucer school of design.
The sleek auto is shown speeding along a superhighway (all of three lanes) as mom, dad and the kids play a board game. What, no “Grand Theft Auto”? The ’50s futurists evidently didn’t envision video games on portable personal computers. Who could blame them?
As we step from the theoretical stage and toward the reality of autonomous cars plying roadways soon, much present talk focuses on how they will work. Not much discussion touches on how they will look.
We can probably rule out the space-age styling that was popular back when many overly imaginative people thought Earth was a tourist destination for visiting aliens. But what should we rule in for autonomous-vehicle design?
We needn’t look further than a vehicle that’s already out there, and has been since Chrysler more or less invented it in the 1980s. It’s so significant that an ’86 model is in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. It’s the minivan. Not only is one a museum piece, a refigured version could become the vehicle of tomorrow.
Spacious minivans offer assorted opportunities for self-driving car interior design. What better vehicle to motor itself around while people loll about inside? Fiat Chrysler Automobiles recently announced plans to partner with Google to build self-driving minivans. That matchup makes sense.
Auto designers talk of the need to rethink interiors when it comes to autonomous cars. The standby called the steering wheel might not be necessary, so out it goes in some sketch renderings. And the long-standing eyes-forward safety mantra potentially is out the window if drivers no longer need to look continually through the windshield to avoid collisions.
Because the minivan seems like a strong candidate for tomorrow’s family room in motion, how about furnishing it with swivel seats, a lounge area, big-screen TVs and mood lighting? Throw in a lava lamp for old times’ sake.
A den on wheels is not a new idea.
A half-century ago, legendary California dealer Bert Boeckmann of Galpin Ford became a customizing pioneer by creating “surfer vans” for the beach set. It started when a young dude said he’d buy a commercial van if Boeckmann put carpeting in it.
Some of the more offbeat subsequent conversions Galpin did included installing a chandelier in one van and, in another, a fireplace (flames were simulated) with a nude painting hanging over it. For his honeymoon, a romantic-minded road warrior ordered a love nest of a van with amorous amenities.
Those early converted commercial vans were truck-based, their ride and handling relatively rough. And obviously they still required a human driver.
Today’s minivans, such as the new Chrysler Pacifica, are much smoother rides. As for future Pacificas, well, there’s the potential to sit back, relax and leave the driving to Chrysler.
It could mean a segment resurgence if minivans became the self-driving vehicle of choice. In the late 1990s, Americans bought about 1 million minivans a year. Today, they purchase half that.
But Tim Kuniskis, FCA’s head of passenger-car brands, puts those sales numbers in perspective.
When annual minivan sales were at the million mark, the segment contained 17 models, he says. Now, only a handful are left, including the Pacifica, Dodge Caravan (for now), Toyota Sienna, Honda Odyssey and Kia Sedona. FCA is the hands-down segment leader.
“You can’t look at the size of the segment alone,” Kuniskis tells me. “There are bigger segments, but they might have 30 or 40 vehicles in them. So, that minivan segment is really good business for us.”
It would get even better if minivans, sometimes scorned as square today, evolve into self-drivers of tomorrow, ruling the roads and making occupants feel right at home.