Mini­vans go back to the fu­ture

Tech firms say they have the per­fect body for self-driv­ing cars

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - NEWS - By Michael Laris

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 — 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 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.

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.”

The work­ing name was the “garage­able van.”

The idea fell flat with Chrysler bosses. Top man­agers thought their big com­peti­tors — Ford and Gen­eral Mo­tors — would have al­ready beaten them to it if there re­ally was a mar­ket, Bouwkamp said.

But when famed auto ex­ec­u­tive Lee Ia­cocca took over Chrysler, he had the “au­to­mo­tive savvy and the guts to go ahead,” Bouwkamp said.

“Now that you’ve seen it, how would you de­scribe it?” Ia­cocca asked when he in­tro­duced the ve­hi­cle in 1983. “A sta­tion wagon? A garage­able van? A bus? A truck? Or what? Ac­tu­ally, it’s all of these and more. The Car­a­van and Voy­ager can be what­ever you want it to be.”

And for many, they were. Un­til they weren’t.

The mini­van was an im­me­di­ate hit, and Chrysler was sell­ing more than a half-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 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.

The mini­van was a means to go on va­ca­tion, it­self part of the evo­lu­tion of mid­dle-class life, he said, and af­ter the Knoches took it home, they went to Walt Dis­ney World. Later, it was to daugh­ter Adri­enne’s soft­ball prac­tices. “It was all about fam­ily life and do­ing stuff in a very prac­ti­cal kind of way,” Lieb­hold said.

Fred Knoche went in big, buy­ing mini­van af­ter mini­van.

“He’s the Van King,” said child­hood friend Matt Tru­pi­ano, who still works for him through Fred’s Key Shop, a land­mark De­troit busi­ness. “To Fred, this is a Corvette.”

The el­e­va­tion of the fam­ily’s 1986 Car­a­van to the Smith­so­nian added to Fred’s mys­tique. He had the Mi­das touch, in busi­ness and even when of­fload­ing an old mini­van. “If there was an atomic bomb fall­ing on De­troit, I would stand next to him and I wouldn’t get hurt,” Tru­pi­ano said.

For the Van King, it was just an­other one of those things.

“I put it up for sale down at my shop. A cou­ple peo­ple looked at it and weren’t in­ter­ested,” Knoche re­called.

Then a Chrysler rep­re­sen­ta­tive learned about a beau­ti­ful, pris­tine early Car­a­van and came to take a look. The man told Knoche to take off the “For Sale” sign, and the com­pany kept it for its his­tor­i­cal col­lec­tion be­fore do­nat­ing it to the Smith­so­nian.

MICHAEL LARIS/FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

The Knoche fam­ily mini­van at the Smith­so­nian’s “Amer­ica on the Move” ex­hibit at the Na­tional Mu­seum of Amer­i­can His­tory.

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