Ever since Henry Ford started marketing the Model T as a car for the common man, the American auto industry has relied on the indisputable fact that America loves cars. By the 1950’s, owning a car was no longer just a dream; it was a necessity. America’s once-sprawling passenger train lines and public transportation options were put out of business as freeways and automobiles dominated the landscape.
But my generation, “Generation Y” or “Millenials” as the old people call us, are changing the landscape when it comes to cars. And unless automakers figure out my generation soon, they risk alienating the largest generation of consumers since the Baby Boomers.
Before I talk about what the auto industry as a whole, is doing wrong, I want to talk about what they are doing right. It is well-documented that my generation is coddled and entitled, and many of us are accustomed to a certain level of comfort and connectivity in our day-to-day lives. After all, a generation of social networkers and music pirates wants to be able to get in touch with friends and family at the touch of a single button, while at the same time recalling their favorite Lady Gaga song. And all of the automakers, from Audi to Volvo, are integrating more infotainment systems into their cars. Ford’s SYNC system arguably leads the pack, though outlets like Consumer Reports have knocked them for over-complicated input commands.
Many automakers are also making “base” level vehicles much more appealing with better build quality and offering features like air conditioning and CD players standard. Once upon a time, driving a “base” level car meant manual windows, an AM radio, and less than 100 horsepower under the hood. Now cars like the Chevy Sonic, Hyundai Elantra, and Ford Fiesta all offer a lot more in the way of what most of my peers would consider “basic” necessities.
And I have to say, after being stuck driving a car without a CD player for two years, I now understand why it is a necessity; radio stations play the same hundred songs over and over and over and over again. So, when it comes to comfort, connectivity, and standard features, automakers are getting it right. But they are still running up against a certain inalienable fact about my generation.
We don’t like cars. Why don’t we like cars? Just look at the facts.
Many of us inherited for our first cars second-hand American vehicles during a time when American cars were in a race to the bottom in terms of quality and reliability. To say our first driving experience was not nearly as enjoyable as someone coming to age in the 1960’s is an understatement. And that’s for those of us who even bothered getting a driver’s license. The number of 16-year olds with a license dropped from about 46% in 1980 to about 31% in 2008. Among 18-year olds, the numbers dropped from 80% to 65%. That’s millions of teens who have opted out of car ownership.
It has also become painfully obvious to even the most phone-obsessed teenager that many of America’s roads are in terrible shape. Speaking of phones, there is a reason why Apple has a ton of cash on hand, while Detroit automakers are saddled with billions in debt. Most young people can’t justify a $20,000 car; but a $400 iPhone? All day, every day. Add that to the fact that gas prices have climbed 300% in about ten years (I can remember filling up with premium fuel for less than $20 when I first started driving; now it takes about $60), and the picture starts to paint itself.
That’s not to say there aren’t still auto enthusiasts out there; there are, just in seriously reduced numbers. People my age have a hard time getting excited about cars when many of us can’t find good-paying jobs. Even if we can afford a nice car, most of the time we spend in the car is commuting to work in bumper-to-bumper traffic on pothole-marred roads. It makes for a rather lousy driving experience, and it is easy to see why many people my age ust aren’t that into driving. To be honest, some days driving is a bummer, even for me.
This dislike of driving has manifested itself in a sort of reverse White Flight, with many young Americans (myself included) fleeing towards urban areas to be closer to work and entertainment. It’s much more practical to live within walking distance of work and shopping versus owning a car for a lot of young people, and there are still enough young drivers so that bumming a ride usually isn’t an issue. I don’t see this trend reversing either. Young Americans are going to keep opting out of cars as long as our roads suck, gas prices are high, and “base” cars still cost more than most of us can afford.
For me, the reasoning was practical; in Connecticut, renting anywhere outside of a metro area generally means sky-high prices. I wanted to get as close to my lady’s place of employment as possible, to keep her daily commute to a minimum. Many of my friends choose to live in Hartford, in apartment buildings down the street from their jobs. Many of them can go a whole month on a single tank of gas, which inevitably means less money in the coffers of the highway fund. This isn’t just a problem for automakers; it’s a problem for the entire U.S. interstate system.
Generation Y want ways to opt of driving. It really is as simple as that. It may seem counter-intuitive to the auto industry, but this is exactly the kind of driving experience the auto industry will have to sell if they want to win back young drivers.
Find out how the auto industry can do this next week in Part II.