The Family Car Has Never Been Better

And in the future? It’ll be the stuff of sci-fi fantasies.

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It’s hard to understand exactly where you are when you’re standing on a mountain top, above the clouds. But that’s exactly the perspective you should appreciate, metaphorically speaking, when it comes to family cars in 2020.

The best family cars, from minivans and sedans to crossovers and SUVs, have never been better. They are safer, smarter, packed with more cutting-edge tech and family-friendly features than ever before. They’re thoughtful, made with an understanding of both what families need — and features they never thought they needed but greatly appreciate. And the future? Well, the future is only getting brighter.

Look down through the mist to the rocky base of the peak we stand upon now, and you’ll see a pretty miserable station wagon, the kind of “family” vehicle that wasn’t especially thoughtful or refined. Station wagons date way back to the nineteen-teens, and they were so-called because they were designed to get passengers to and from a train station.

These long wagons hit their pinnacle with the invention of the suburb in the Post-War boom. They got increasingly better, but for the most part — save some excellent examples from the likes of Mercedes and Volvo — these were tanks that handled like slightly massaged tractors. They had flat, hard bench seats that let kids slide all over the place, and were even late to getting seatbelts. Air-conditioning would be one of the major tech breakthroughs. But airbags? WiFi? Refined, car-like handling? Nope. Even a quiet cockpit, something you’d take for granted now, was unthinkable.

Family cars of old were a punchline that only further cemented the notion that once you had a family you’d be forever condemned to a joyless existence. That stigma was especially true for minivans, especially anyone who grew up with parents driving one. There’s something about them that screamed, “Hey, there. I’m an exhausted parent just hoping to make it through the day for eternity.”

We are, fortunately, far beyond that. Modern crossovers are jammed with family-friendly features, and are, at minimum, enjoyable to drive. Some are even a blast. You won’t feel penalized for procreating because, why should you?

At long last, design teams are more than just a room filled with (mostly male) car enthusiasts.

In fact, if anything, and it only took 70 years or so, carmakers now fall all over themselves chasing onboard amenities. They boast about child seat–friendly second and third rows, high cup holder counts, USB plugs, rear-seat 12-volt adapters for more devices, and fabrics that are easier to clean and nearly impossible to stain. There are strategically placed cubbies and flip-up bins in the hatch to retain groceries. There are doors that open wide enough that you don’t have to awkwardly tilt a car seat through them.

There’s genuine practicality put into both big features and small. You know why? Because, at long last, design teams are more than just a room filled with (mostly male) car enthusiasts. They purposefully recruit actual parents to work on their cars.

GM’s Jerry Durkin, head of interior design, says that it’s teams like these that, for instance, pushed adding optional rear-seat LCD screens early on. These cost more, but Durkin argues their utility — and safety — because you don’t have something relatively large, like a tablet, in a kid’s hand that can become a projectile during an accident. As an added bonus? The content can often be controlled by the parents in the front seat. Such thinking moves the ball forward.

Mark Gillies, who handles PR for Volkswagen in the U.S., also argues strongly that, given “current distractions,” cars are profoundly safer today than just a few decades ago. He reels off the far-better crash structures, but also superior tires, and especially tech that prevents accidents, from automatic emergency braking and lane-keeping to systems that monitor driver alertness. Many of these once unimaginable features now come standard.

“Imagine the carnage on the roads without all these,” Gilles says. “Nowadays, your car can brake you to a halt while you fail to pay attention and then accelerate you up to speed without your input.”

The future family car might not just be autonomous: It might look nothing like what we think of as a “car.”

The future of the family car is looking bright indeed. A convergence is arriving between high-speed connectivity from 5G wireless and predictive analytics from technology born of AI. The latter might seem obscure. But think about how every phone has voice recognition and you start to understand that if Big Tech can track when you’ll run out of diapers, it can also track behavior.

Consider that AI that can predict the paths of objects, and redundant sensor tech on cars that can overlap the predicted track with where a car actually is in space (and, yes, slap on some input from the steering angle of the car, the speed of the tires, etc.), and you’ll get an idea. Imagine, too, a 3D map of every car on every street in real-time. That’s what it’s going to take to get to fully self-driving cars.

Yes, it will be a while before this tech is widely available. But look back just 13 years ago when the first iPhone debuted and you can already see how far things move. Hell, right now we talk to our cars, not just our phones. And they mostly know what we want to do.

In turn, this means the future family car might not just be autonomous: It might look nothing like what we think of as a “car.”

Tom Kearns, Chief Designer at Kia, suggested that a safer vehicle, one that’s never in an accident, may not “need bumpers or crumple zones.” T. Jon Mayer, Senior Director of Exterior Strategic and Program Design at Volvo Cars, talked about something similar, noting that Volvo’s history is in making cars more upright, anticipating even back to Volvo’s wagon-centric era, vehicles that let the whole family have a view of their surroundings, presaging the current crossover craze. He believes we’ll always like to sit up relatively high, but that, like Kearns, he’s not so sure we’ll always love the current dominant SUV/crossover design format.

But inside the car, Mayer also mentioned what Volvo currently stresses: less instrumentation clutter.

“If you think about what we can do now with voice, why should you need instruments, which are really less humanistic, when you could just speak instead?” he asks.

Mayer envisions vehicles that are warmer, like the 360 Concept Volvo showed recently, with home furnishings (yet more possible if a car is far less likely to crash), and far fewer indicators and controls. It will not have, he says, 5,000 screens “which we already have too much of, overloading us.”

Nearer term, Kearns points to Kia’s electric Habaniro Concept which was designed in a similar vein to what Volvo’s Mayer was discussing, where screens could appear for both front or rear passengers as a full-width, heads-up display, which would allow entertainment or in-car function selection through tapping and swiping or gesture controls. The screens themselves, however, would be virtual, disappearing as needed or desired. Yes, gesture control is already enabled in several brands of cars, so this future has, to a point, already arrived. But that’s just scratching the augmented surface.

The reshaping of cars is on a similar course. We are not in a fenderless age yet. But electric cars don’t need big hoods for engines. This means designers get the chance to “package” family cars differently, with batteries beneath totally flat floors, so the interior is more inviting to passengers. Electric cars also let designers add more light to the interior because power consumption is no longer as much of an issue (and low-energy LEDs help, too).

Exciting, isn’t it? And while it may not happen tomorrow, both Kearns and Mayer envision autonomy allowing family cars that let all passengers face inward, in a living-room-style arrangement.

“That would make trips a time for all members of the family to interact while traveling,” Kearns, who is a dad, says. “As someone who does most of the driving on road trips, I would relish the opportunity to spend that time connecting with my children.”

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