The Revenge of the Minivan

It’s the prototype for Google’s next self-driving car. It’s also the fastest-growing segment of the record-setting U.S. auto market.


Last year, the American auto industry sold a record-setting 17.5 million vehicles. This year, the industry is on pace to break its own record.

The auto comeback of the last few years has been driven by what the industry calls “light-weight trucks,” or what normal people call “SUVs, minivans, and other vehicles that are neither midsize cars nor 18-wheeler trucks.” This is the story of the century, really. Since 2000, cars and “trucks” moved in perfectly opposite directions: Domestic and foreign car sales are down 14 percent, while light-weight truck sales are up 15 percent.

But there’s something particularly interesting about the category leading all vehicles in the best three-month start to auto sales in U.S. history …

… no. Minivans?

Yes. Minivans! The soccer-mom icon of the 1990s had a rough start to the 21st century. Sales fell by two-thirds in the first decade, from 1.2 million in 2000 to just over 400,000 in 2009. In the last five years, minivans recovered slightly, but mostly they bounced up and down around the half-million mark, like a Honda Odyssey rolling over a series of speed bumps.

But perhaps minivans are poised for a mini-comeback. They led all vehicles in sales growth in the month of March, as well for the first three months of 2016. More than 143,000 minivans have sold so far this year, almost three-times the number of luxury SUVs. Toyota sold more of its Sienna model in America in 2015 than in any year since the recession. Meanwhile Honda's minivan, the Odyssey, is outselling its Pilot SUV, the Wall Street Journal reported.

And just yesterday, Bloomberg reported that Fiat-Chrysler, the largest manufacturer of minivans for the U.S., will partner with Google’s self-driving car division, the first such cooperation in the tech company's history. The product will be based on Chrysler’s Pacifica minivan. They will start building vehicles this year.

The Wall Street Journal predicts a steady but unremarkable future for minivans, but several trends suggest that a vehicle synonymous with suburban families has a lot of room to grow. Twentysomethings aren’t yet buying houses anywhere near the rate of older generations. But most of them probably will, eventually; the homeownership rate has been above 60 percent since the 1960s. American families aren’t having as many children as they were before the recession, but that will probably change, too. In 2014, the birth rate among women ages 15 to 44 grew for the first time in seven years. Meanwhile, Americans are living like it’s 2006 again, by enjoying cheap gas and moving out to the suburbs, where there is space to own a vehicle large enough to house several rows of seats and a television set.

The roominess of the modern minivan offers the perfect platform for the armada of tech features that designers want to smuggle inside the modern car. Today’s minivans don’t just offer the signature features of my elementary-school carpool, like sliding doors and single seats in the middle row. Today’s models come with built-in vacuum cleaners and entertainment systems to hypnotize children in the backseat. No wonder the modern minivan is the basis for Google’s first auto partnership: It’s not a car, so much as a roving living room with seat belts.

In the larger picture, minivans are still miles behind SUVs and crossovers, which now account for more than a third of all autos sold in the U.S. Instead, it’s best to think of them like the vinyl record of the auto industry: a category in long decline that's suddenly, and perhaps even inexplicably, enjoying rapid growth from a diminished base. But whereas vinyl’s comeback is rooted in nostalgia, the return of the minivan would be more utilitarian. If companies like Google are building autonomous vehicles in the bodies of minivans, the future of Millennial vehicular travel will look like it did in their childhoods: The doors will slide open, the middle chairs will swivel, and they won’t be the ones driving.