Navigant Research Blog

Autonomous Ride-Hailing May Hail the New Era of the Minivan

Sam Abuelsamid — December 22, 2016

CarsharingIt’s been more than 3 decades since Hal Sperlich and Lee Iacocca redefined the family hauler with the introduction of the minivan. Over the subsequent 20 years, the minivan segment grew to become one of the largest in the US market before being overtaken by SUVs and beginning a long and steady decline. However, as we move into the era of autonomous mobility services, we may also see a resurgence of what had been derided as the “soccer mom-mobile.”

While the minivan market isn’t as big as it once was in total sales volume, as these vehicles have gained useful amenities, they have become quite profitable. Starting in 2016, the companies that have stuck by this body style have begun introducing redesigned vans, including the 2017 Chrysler Pacifica and the 2018 Honda Odyssey that will debut at January’s North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

Vans On Demand

When Google decided it was time to expand its development fleet of self-driving cars, it struck a deal with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) to purchase 100 Pacifica plug-in hybrid EVs (PHEVs) and equip them with its autonomous sensing and control systems. With the self-driving car project now spun out of the X research lab as a separate company called Waymo, it has also announced an agreement with Honda to discuss collaboration on development and possibly commercialization of autonomous technologies. In Navigant Research’s 2015 Autonomous Vehicle OEM Leaderboard Report, Honda was ranked eighth among 18 companies evaluated, so working with Waymo could provide a boost relative to the market leaders.

Since auto industry veteran John Krafcik came on board as CEO of what is now Waymo in October 2015, the program has apparently shifted its focus from developing complete cars to working with existing carmakers to supply its systems as well as potentially building mobility service platforms. As the shape of future mobility services continues to evolve, these platforms are likely to include a broad range of vehicle types to support different needs. One- or two-person pods may be adequate to provide first/last mile transportation in dense urban areas, while something more akin to a minivan can support families or larger groups traveling on a variety of routes that don’t have sufficient density to make mass transit viable.

Ford-owned San Francisco-based startup Chariot is already providing hybrid on-demand services in San Francisco and Austin, Texas with human-driven vans. As autonomous vans become available, they could be deployed in the same way. For these types of transportation services, the easier ingress/egress of a van would be much more practical than climbing up into an SUV.

Growing Trend

Volkswagen will also be joining in on the autonomous van trend at January’s Detroit show. The embattled German automaker will be unveiling a new battery electric micro-bus concept based on the same new modular electric platform that underpins the I.D. concept shown at this year’s Frankfurt Motor Show. FCA will be participating in the 2017 International CES in Las Vegas for the first time and will reportedly show a battery electric version of the Pacifica.

FCA’s program with Waymo only extended as far integrating autonomous hardware into the minivan and does not include system development. However, as one of the companies in the back half of the pack in the Leaderboard rankings, FCA would also be a good candidate to adopt a production autonomous package from Waymo or one of the larger Tier One suppliers such as Delphi or Continental. We’ll probably be seeing a lot more self-driving minivans in the coming decade.

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