There was a time when rolling around in a wood-paneled station wagon was a symbol of status. A minivan was a practical necessity. Now, all you can think about are Family Trucksters and Soccer Moms. And sure, you’ll happily walk around with a tiny person strapped to you via a web of Scandinavian elastic, but won’t be caught dead in a Volvo. The relationship with family cars is possibly one of the least rational aspects of automotive culture. Even today, as parents have pivoted away from the traditional station wagons and vans to SUVs and crossovers, there’s a bigger trend emerging beyond more cup holders.
To find out what’s coming up around the bend, we asked 3 auto pioneers what they thought was the future of the family car: J Mays, former CCO at Ford Motor Group and one of the most influential designers in the game. Curtis Brubaker — architect of the “Brubaker Box,” a wild modular vehicle concept that was ahead of its time. And Jason Hill, president of Eleven LLC and former head of ArtCenter’s automotive design school. The question is simple: What is the auto industry going to build for the person with kids in the near and distant future?
The answer isn’t so simple. Mays describes a near-future that might look a lot like the present: better, more automated SUVs that are still shedding the vestiges of that wood-paneling and third-row of seats. Brubaker says that your grandkid is going to commute in a vehicle that sounds like Uber, the Transformers, and an Airstream adopted a baby. And Hill believes where we’re going, we don’t need steering wheels or windows.
The Past: Station Wagons And Vans
The true family-specific car really didn’t take off until the 1950s, when returning World War II GIs started having lots and lots of kids. Carmakers saw these new dads as the first opportunity to develop cars specifically for parents. Alongside tons of Baby Boomers, station wagons like the Ford Country Squire and the Studebaker Wagonaire were born. These wood-paneled giants set an important standard for the family car: maximize the volume of enclosed space. The separate trunk was scrapped favor of a rear cargo compartment accessible from the rest of the car. Now you could haul the luggage and still have a play/nap/refuge space for your 2.5 children.
Heading into the 1970s, American vans enjoyed a surge of popularity from young people, who would customize Ford Econolines and Dodge A100s with airbrushed murals of wizards and orcs and shit. Lost hippies would amble around in their Volkswagen Type II Minibuses. And they’d all slather the interiors with shag carpet, creating mobile rooms which were suitable for non-family activities. You can see those kids becoming yuppie, as the 80s ushered in minivans like the Chrysler Town & Country, which replaced both wagons (RIP Family Truckster) and those psychedelic Mystery Machines.
“If you go back and look at various decades, they all stood for something,” says Mays. “If you think about the advent of the 80s, that was all about status. The 90s became the decade all about lifestyle and adventure. Status didn’t go away, it became slightly more nuanced. It gave people the chance to drive a vehicle that would say not only say ‘I’m wealthy, but I’m also quite adventurous and sporty.’ I think that’s a pretty hard ask to have people walk away from.”
The Present: Bye-Bye Minivan, Hello SUV
The minivan stigma really took off in the 90s, when young parents became strangely self-conscious about the idea of buying a car designed for their needs. Mays says even he has a love/hate relationship with minivan. They do the job better than almost anything, but they look “as though they always smell like diapers.”
It’s hard to believe that someone is going to come up with something in the near future that is going to replace the SUV.
When SUVs came on the scene, starting with Ford Explorer in the 2000s, it began the trend of cars that got bigger and bigger (your Denalis, your Expeditions), before they got smaller and smaller (your crossovers like the Escape or CR-V) as the decade rolled on. These modern family cars are more like child-rearing assault vehicles. They’re taller than the humble station wagon. They’re beefier (usually needlessly) than the practical minivan. And they’ve got big-ass wheels and engineered to be capable of things that it will almost never be asked to do. It became the answer to Gen X and Y dads who believed minivans should also come with their balls hanging off the rearview mirror.
Now, there’s a backlash. Millennials don’t want to drive the Official Vehicle Of Climate Change or car that takes up half a city block. They want the luxury, they want the power, but they also want it to be environmentally responsible, fuel-efficient, and able to fit into a 2 car garage. It seems that the SUV family car may be coming to an end.
Or maybe not. Mays thinks SUVs (and their smaller crossover cousins) will remain the dominant family car platform for quite some time — but not forever. “My feeling is that the SUV will continue its stranglehold on the market. It’s going to continue to evolve and become more fuel-efficient. It’s going to have different propulsion than it does today. It’s hard to believe that someone is going to come up with something in the near future — and by near future, I mean the next 10 years — that is going to replace the SUV. Not in terms of its practicality or its ability to get the job done, but as something that is going to replace the SUV in terms of something that ticks all the emotional buttons. I think that’s key to the success of the SUV; it hits emotional buttons that no other vehicle does.”
The Future: Taking You Out Of The Driver’s Seat
With autonomous cars looming on the not-so-distant horizon, we’re facing the largest shift in the history of automobiles since the driving layout was standardized in the early 1900s.
Once you eliminate human control, everything changes. You no longer need to provide any sort of attempt to provide a satisfying driving experience.
Autonomy will fundamentally change almost every established rule car designers have held fast to. Every car built today — and, really, pretty much every car that ever has been built — is driver-focused. Sure, for family cars you can argue that passenger carrying and cargo space are the real focuses, but the basic layout of the machine we call a car is one designed around a seat for a human being to control the motion of that machine through space.
Once you eliminate human control, everything changes. You no longer need to design something with adequate visibility, responsive handling, or any sort of attempt to provide a satisfying driving experience. Computers don’t care about that. But, more importantly, they don’t write car reviews.
Don’t think about an autonomous car as a car — it’s really a robot. It’s an errand-running robot that’s likely capable of transporting you as well. That means the design of it can be radically different from cars as we now know them. When you’re freed from the task of driving, your transport-robot can haul you around in something that looks and feels like a detachable part of your home, as Jason Hill, former head of ArtCenter’s automotive design school, describes:
“In the quick and near future, our seamless transition between home and vehicle and destination will become more actual. Instead of stopping what we are doing to ‘drive’ somewhere, we will move effortlessly between a place of residence (home), and transport.”
Now your vehicle is an extension of the home — like your old bong-resin-smelling van, it’s a room on wheels that happens to take you places. (Far out places?)
In the quick and near future, our seamless transition between home and vehicle and destination will become more actual.
Mays believes that nobody quite knows what will happen when self-driving cars hit a critical mass in cities around the world. “I think that’s going to be a trick that’s not yet answered,” he says. “I equated it slightly to what was going on in the very early 80s, when it was decreed that every car would be highly aerodynamic. And then all manufacturers forgot about everything other than making their cars totally aerodynamic. Until all the technical gubbins are worked out, designers are free to wonder what these autonomous cars would look like. And from what I’ve seen at car shows, it doesn’t look like anyone’s cracked the code on it.” What will happen once we relinquish control — here are 2 takes on the SUV of tomorrow.
Introducing The FamCar, Your Mobile Home
The more divergent vision of the family car of the future comes from an auto designer who didn’t work for one of the Big 3. He’s someone who’s designed a car 40 years ago that really took some risks and broke some rules. His name is Curtis Brubaker, and he’s the father of the Brubaker Box.
If that name means nothing to you, the Brubaker Box was a kit car from the 70s designed to be built on an air-cooled Volkswagen chassis. Think of a low, long van. Basically, the Brubaker Box is to minivans what Natalie Portman is to me: Vastly more attractive and appealing. Most likely a good bit smarter as well; we’re just both built on the same basic Ashkenazi platform. J Mays was thinking of the Brubaker Box when he was thinking about this “seamless transition between home and vehicle.”
Brubaker, despite being known for a car called the Box, isn’t fond of thinking inside one. His current visions of the future is something he calls the FamCar. It’s an idea of what a family car could be if anyone had the guts to design something from scratch.
Interestingly, one of Brubaker’s family car ideas has a bit a parallel thought to a concept proposed by Volvo and Chinese owner Geely’s new car brand, Lynk & Co. (Think Saturn, but with a lot more Internet, and a dash of ZipCar.) Maybe this stuff isn’t as unlikely as we think.
Brubaker considers a key element of family cars that so many designers conveniently forget: Stuff. Family cars are crammed full of all manner of crap, and they likely will continue to be. In many big cities, the car becomes a refuge; a storage locker. This becomes an issue when you consider Brubaker’s other predictions — that the family car of the future will be shared.
He says that his “on-demand family car solution” solves the problem of paying money just to let your car sit idle in a parking space. It’s not a car rental. It’s not a nasty car sharing service — where the seats are stained, it smells like century-old Chipotle, and Drake comes on at full-volume when you start the car. The concept is kind of a half POD storage container, half electric vehicle. Or what would happen if your living room drove itself onto a flatbed truck.
“[The] car [is] composed to your precise mission, fully-loaded with with the precise contents each family member demands (or wants) for the day’s adventure; arriving clean, fresh-smelling and most likely driverless to your doorstep or driveway. And billed to your annual subscription or charged to your business or personal PayPal,” says Brubaker.
The concept is kind of a half POD storage container, half electric vehicle. Or what would happen if your living room drove itself onto a flatbed truck.
According to the designer, the basic family car platform will be a shared van-like vehicle, possibly with a flat skateboard-like chassis that houses an electric drivetrain. In the box-like body, privately-owned “Carlin Modules” (named after the comedian who had big ideas about stuff) could be inserted. This would allow you to configure and personalize the shared base vehicle into whatever you want. Your own layout, seats, and more stuff. It’s a little like being able to separate the whole interior from any current car.
The Ultimate (Non) Driving Machine
Jason Hill’s vision isn’t too dissimilar; the autonomous wheeled room he’s imagining would most likely be a one-box design as well. What makes his concept especially interesting is how interior-focused it will be. How the car looks is no longer important —and neither are windows.
“All our personalization effects will become mobile. This includes our personal preferences beyond temperature and music,” says Hill. “Autonomy removes ‘responsibility’ of critical second to second decisions. We will, as a family, be able to continue our shared learning and shared experience whilst traveling. This will end the days of ‘look over there.’”
This is a vision of a world where driving isn’t a thing. It’s so seamlessly combined into the structures of life that you don’t think about it. The autonomous vehicles just work, and are a ubiquitous and invisible part of your life. City folk have had a crude version of this for more than a century — it’s called the subway. Although, the future version would likely a) work efficiently and b) have less street performers.
Just Let It Ride
The collective wisdom from most car experts is that we’ll be driving our families around for at least another decade or so. Maybe it’s because our identities are still wrapped up in what we choose drive. Hopefully, that also means there will always be a place for interesting cars. Even interesting family cars. Manufacturers aren’t going to stop the march towards safer, more reliable, more efficient, and more technologically advanced models than today. But, unfortunately, that also sounds mind-numbingly boring. If you thought station wagons and minivans were uncool, wait until you pack your kind in “the box.”
Yeah, the next few decades may also very well upend your responsibility as a driver and what your kids know as the car. The future may be a vehicular salad of autonomous vehicles, high-status SUVs, rooms on wheels, radical multi-pod driving robots. But remember, parents will always fight against the norms of their folks. It’s why idiots like myself insist on driving their kids around in 50 year-old deathtraps — because I’m cool. (Or maybe an idiot.)