British cultural critic Stephen Bayley, in an interview with this author, stated, “Driving a car is the act of projecting your personality through visual metaphors; this is central to erotica.” It is safe to assume Mr Bayley does not drive a minivan, because minivans are the mom jeans of the automotive world.
But the grocery-getting emasculation-mobile — now entering its mid-thirties — might be ripe for a midlife sexual awakening.
The Algorithm Method
On 3 May, Google and Fiat-Chrysler announced that they would integrate Google self-driving technology into 100 examples of the 2017 Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivans. Fiat-Chrysler will be designing the vehicles in such a way that all of Google’s sensors and computers can be built right in, and all of the smart software that’s been trained by legions of Google cars will soon be piloting families to Little League games throughout the suburbs of America.
With a minivan, it’s a big temptation to put the seats down and have sex while the computer’s driving. That’s very dangerous. People are there for a Plan B when the computer can’t deal with the situation.
“This experience will help both teams better understand how to create a fully self-driving car that can take you from A to B with the touch of a button,” reads a post from the Google Self-Driving Car Project. Minivans with wide hands-free doors will offer a new transportation option to millions of people, they note. Immediately, this would include the disabled, the very young, and the elderly, and eventually the sleepy, the directionally challenged, the inebriated, and those who would rather work than drive.
It would also include those who would rather get busy than drive. “Work done by Tesla and Google shows that people very, very quickly learn to trust the technology,” says Barrie Kirk of the Canadian Automated Vehicles Centre of Excellence. “They do silly and stupid things, like brushing their teeth, eating meals, and climbing into the back seat.”
“With a minivan,” he continues, “it’s a big temptation to put the seats down and have sex while the computer’s driving. That’s very dangerous. People are there for a Plan B when the computer can’t deal with the situation.”
Right now, sexytime is one of hundreds of activities that might interfere with human attention, but Google’s most advanced technology assumes — and indeed is built for — zero human control, and its own Driverless Car famously doesn’t even have a steering wheel.
It’s function over form
The minivan, classically, represents the sacrifice of passion for practicality, of libido for legroom. Its acceleration is flaccid, its suspension is spongy, its interior a wonderland of electronic compensation for mechanical incompetence. It does not so much handle as fumble.
“Driving a car is like a sexual performance in a way,” notes Bayley. “It’s your proxy.” The minivan, built for mall runs rather than zero-to-60 runs, doesn’t do much to get motors running.
But when the driving is algorithmic, you can take in the view from the back seat — the wide, soft back seat behind tinted windows, with its plastic geology of cupholders, surround sound, and mood lighting. And a few video screens, if you’re into that. It’s a concept that Switzerland-based design house Rinspeed demonstrated quite well earlier this with the very cosy, Tesla Model S-based XchangE driverless concept car.
If the idea of sex in a minivan — where, let’s face it, there will be Cheerios between the cushions — creeps you out, then consider that one of the first minivan prototypes was pretty much designed for orgies.
If the minivan’s rockin’
The first mass-market minivan was 1983’s Chrysler Town and Country, also badged as the Plymouth Voyager and Dodge Caravan. As the market for gas-guzzling station wagons collapsed, they rolled in with good fuel efficiency, lots of passenger and cargo room, car-like handling, and all the sexy lines that made the K-Car such a big hit.
But before that (and one can quibble about the 1936 Stout Scarab, the 1949 DKW Schnellaster, or even the VW Type 2 and Mazda Bongo), there was a concept car presented at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, in a 1972 exhibition titled, Italy: The New Domestic Landscape. Called the Kar-A-Sutra, the vehicle was conceived by the Italian industrial designer Mario Bellini, whose credits include the iconic Olivetti Lettera 10 typewriter and the Fujica DL-100 camera.
An argument can be made that the name referred to the many positions that the vehicle’s passengers might take on the rubberized beanbag cushions of the interior, but there was no doubt that sex played a part in the thinking. Bellini said the car was designed for people to "stretch out, sleep, smile, chat face-to-face, stand up, enjoy the sun, take photos, play cards, eat and drink, make love, buy a horse and a piano along the way... Forerunning the future, the car becomes a MOBILE HUMAN SPACE." (Judging from promotional photos of the car, “frolicking with pansexual exhibitionist mimes” might also have made the list.)
In Kar-A-Sutra, you could 'stretch out, sleep, smile, chat face-to-face, stand up, enjoy the sun, take photos, play cards, eat and drink, make love, buy a horse and a piano along the way'.
Bellini built the Kar-A-Sutra on the platform of the Citroën DS. The concept measured 8 feet wide and 20 feet long — which isn’t very mini — but the vast expanses of glass, the flat floor, beam-and-pillar construction, and three-row seating (four, if you count the wide, cushioned dashboard) do a good job of foreseeing what a minivan would look like. While it didn’t have the ingenious sliding door that marks minivans today, it did have a large rear hatch/glass canopy, which made for easy in-and-out. (Cough.) It also was a convertible, with a roof that lifted from an aerodynamic 4 feet up to a comfortable 7 feet when parked. Bellini saw the car as “an exploration capsule which could be rented at the sea or in the mountains” in which to “fully enjoy the sensorial pleasure of movement in open space.”
Alas, the Kar-A-Sutra was all rocking, and no rolling. Even by 1972 standards, the beanbag seating arrangement was unsafe, and though it had a steering wheel (for show, or perhaps leverage), it did not have an engine or a working drive train. The single physical manifestation of the Kar-A-Sutra is believed lost to time — and with it, all the sexiness of an entire vehicle market segment.
Bringing Sexy Back
So don’t count out the minivan yet. Though it’s lost plenty of ground to SUVs, crossovers, and sporty estates, it has a future, the addition of autonomous technology makes that future resembles the glorious, sexy past.
“As you look further downstream, to when the vehicles are fully autonomous,” says Kirk, “then it’s inevitable. But this is not a new effect; if you talk to long-distance truck drivers — who sit high up and can see down into cars — they report they see a lot of sex, and that’s in non-autonomous vehicles.”
Perhaps responding to market forces, marques produce concepts like the Mercedes-Benz Vision Tokyo — which is little more than an autonomous minivan with a flexible interior, and is as clearly designed for connubial relations as a heart-shaped Jacuzzi. Various other future-mobiles from the likes of Volvo, Nissan and everyone else promise reclining seats in autonomous mode, and under the cover of night or darkening electrochromic windows, one can expect a different kind of pile-up on the interstate. At least, as soon as someone figures out how to hack around the seatbelt alarm.
The primary school drop-off line may still be aggravating, but Mommy and Daddy date night will never be the same.
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