Fresh off a major overhaul of its stalwart Pacifica minivan, Chrysler has set its sights on the frisky millennials who will soon be queuing up for family-friendly transportation. The Portal concept vehicle, unveiled today at CES, is an all-electric, hyper-designy, semi-autonomous, configurable “third space” between work and home.
Sociologists used to use the term “third space” to mean “a place people go that isn’t work or home,” like a coffeeshop or a bar. And that’s kind of how Chrysler means it, too. Except it’s a minivan. The Portal does indeed have an airy environment, dynamic LED lighting, and a variety of textures and surfaces. If that doesn’t soothe the savage brats you’re going to stuff in there to get to soccer practice, there’s also flexible-seating that lets the thrones slide up and down the full length of the vehicle. We like where this is spatial-buffer idea is going—when the kids get noisy, just slide their butts to the rear. When they get it out of their system, reel ’em back in.
And maybe it’s true that millennials don’t have the same aversion to minivans that Generations X and Y do. Maybe they like things like “portal doors” that slide forward, backward, and outward. Maybe today’s twentysomethings will shop based on facial recognition software that reconfigures the van according to who’s riding, and voice biometrics that will let them shout at it to open the doors when they’re outside in the rain. Who wouldn’t enjoy a “community display” that allows passengers to stream video, music and images, and even take group selfies? Even jaded old people couldn’t possibly have anything against a zoned audio system that allows each occupant to listen to different noise without headphones, and infrastructure communications that let the car receive crash warnings, alerts about emergency vehicles in the vicinity, and recognize traffic signs. Tired of yelling “don’t make me come back there!” to the third row? use the intercom. Had enough of “Dad, he’s hogging the charger and my Kindle is out of power?” The Portal has more USB chargers and device docking stations than you can possibly imagine. And you can imagine quite a few.
Chrysler’s reps say their internal research tells them millennials want All The Things. They grew up with technology, and pretty soon they’re going to have kids, and a need to move those kids places. So, goes the hypothesis, they’re going to want a vehicle that’s upgradeable and integrates with their personal tech. It’s a note many other carmakers have begun to aggressively hit. “The Portal is our first indication of Fiat Chrysler’s potential approach to what the interior vehicle space might be like for autonomous vehicles,” says Stephanie Brinley, an automotive analyst at IHS. “There is clever use of technology for creating a space conducive for sharing content as well as consuming content individually.” While Chrysler isn’t quite at the forefront of tech-oriented interior design, Brinley adds, its effort with the Portal is promising. “It offers clever and well-thought-out solutions, in terms of technology and design, for integrating Internet-of-Things technology into the vehicle in a meaningful way,” she says.
Millennials also care about the environment, we’re told, so the Portal’s 100 kWh lithium-ion battery—integrated in the vehicle underbody, as is the custom, to increase usable space up top and also enhance handling and comfort—will generate 250 miles of range on a full charge, with up to 150 miles of range achievable via a 20-minute charge.
Perhaps also in keeping with another familiar millennial trope—that they don’t dig driving—the Portal will have Level Three semi-autonomous operation, via laser, radar, sonar, and vision sensing. The steering wheel will collapse into itself to be less obtrusive, and if full autonomy arrives, it can retract completely into the dashboard.
Finally, the aesthetics: Of course, production products only rarely look like their concepts, and the Portal has design flourishes that are dramatic but not entirely mass-market-friendly. But it’s overall shape and the multi-hued exterior could easily live to see the assembly line, and more importantly, it doesn’t look like a minivan. It’s several inches shorter and lower than Chrysler’s Pacifica, but just as wide. This gives it, dare we say, a slightly sporty vibe. Millennials like “sporty,” right?