2017 Chrysler Pacifica: The Mindful Minivan
by Dan Frio, Automotive Editor
With adaptive cruise control that can slow to a halt and lane keeping assist, our 2017 Chrysler Pacifica has the basic ingredients for semi-autonomous driving. Slap a few more cameras and LIDAR sensors on there and you can even have your own Waymo. But as is, the Pacifica doesn't quite feel ready for semi-auto primetime.
The lane keeping system is pretty aggressive, for example. Drift to the edge to make room for a passing motorcycle or a road crew and you'll receive a forceful pulse from the steering wheel bumping you back to the center of the lane. It'll do the same if you casually drift over the line without signaling a lane change. It's as if you've got a strong fish at the end of the steering system.
We also noticed that the lane keeping system can be inconsistent. Several times it allowed me to pass over the lines, then it intervened late or not at all. It's also prone to some uncertainty and a resulting ping-pong effect. I'm sure the system's exaggerated adjustments made me look like a drunken driver on the road.
Adaptive cruise is a bit better. Most of the time it brakes with a measure of graceful deceleration. It maintains a good margin of error from the car in front while still following closely enough to discourage most courteous drivers from sneaking in. Key word: most. The inevitable traffic gnat will always find a way in front of you, and when he does, ACC is prone to panic and forceful braking.
It also seems unable to discern when initiating a pass, even with the turn signal engaged and adding throttle and steering. It still sees the lead car, even when clear of half its bumper, as an obstacle. Then it panics and brakes hard, scrubbing speed and making you no friends as traffic approaches quickly from behind.
All that said, it's better the Pacifica has these tools than not. They're useful on a car of this size, especially a car driven by parents in varying states of inattention. I'm thinking of lane keeping assist as something more like "text protect assist." When Soccer Mom's eyes and thumb are busy coordinating pickup times, she's less likely to broadside you as the Pacifica can push her back into her lane (this of course just emboldens bad behavior, but that's for another day).
Chrysler hasn't made a big pitch for the Pacifica's semi-autonomy, but a spokesman did mention its potential during its debut at the Detroit Auto Show in 2016. I'd say it still needs time in the oven before making it a talking point. It's still very far behind benchmark semi-auto systems from Mercedes-Benz and Volvo, for example. But given how much family-stuck-in-traffic time a minivan is likely to see in its service life, I'd venture a semi-autonomous minivan is a promising and welcome development.
Dan Frio, Automotive Editor @ 13,342 miles