Cars not a driving force for teens
Many youths today are more interested in phones and social media than cars, a trend that has long-term implications for concerned automakers
By Jerry HirschTribune Newspapers
March 16, 2013
Given a choice between a new Toyota Corolla or the latest iPhone, 16-year-old Allison Katz says that's an easy one.
She'd take the phone.
Texting drives her social life. She doesn't have a driver's license and hasn't rushed to get one.
"I mostly stay near my house except for soccer practice, and then Mom or Dad drives," Katz said.
It's enough to keep an auto executive awake at night.
Thirty years ago, nearly half of 16-year-olds had a driver's license, their passport to independence. By 2010, that figure had dropped to 28 percent, according to research from the University of Michigan.
The cultural shift owes largely to technology that keeps teens connected to one another as well as the coolest new stuff without ever getting in a car. All the adolescent staples — music, movies, clothes, books — are available with a mouse click or smartphone swipe.
Driving once allowed teens "to go where you want, do what you want, see who you want and, in some sense, be who you want," said Lindsey Kirchoff, 23, of marketing software companyHubSpot and a millennial trend marketing consultant. "The Internet has made the freedom that comes with a license anticlimactic."
Getting a driver's license has also gotten a lot tougher.
For starters, today's teens are more pressed for time than their parents ever were. Stiff competition for college admissions means prep courses, SAT tutoring, team sports and other activities to buff up college resumes.
Meanwhile, driver's education classes, once a staple in high schools, have fallen victim to budget cuts, making it harder for teens to get the training.
California is particularly tough. The state requires those younger than 18 to spend 50 hours behind the wheel with an adult older than 25 before taking the test. And even those who pass face restrictions that severely crimp their social lives. Licensed drivers younger than 18 can't drive with friends unless accompanied by a parent or guardian. They also can't drive from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m.
"The rules turn teens away," said Jessica Gonzalez, spokeswoman for the California Department of Motor Vehicles.
This generation's waning interest in driving has serious long-term implications for automotive sales and marketing. Before selling young buyers on any particular model — say, a Honda Civic versus a Chevrolet Cruze — automakers have to convince them that they need a car.
Drivers ages 15 to 20 accounted for 3.4 percent of new-car sales in 1985, or about 500,000 vehicles, according to CNW Research, an automotive market research firm. That dropped to 2.0 percent last year, or 300,000 vehicles.
The implications for automakers go deeper than a few lost or delayed sales to the young. Many of today's teenagers won't form the same emotional attachment to driving as did their parents, who aspired to luxury or performance cars as status symbols.
Katz and many teens without licenses say they will eventually learn to drive. But they won't have "parked" at popular hangouts. In-N-Out Burger will be walk-up rather than drive-thru. They won't make formative memories in cars or develop a passion for driving.
Status now comes from gigabits instead of horsepower, the newest iPad with a Retina display rather than a BMW.
This generation will likely purchase fewer cars during its lifetime than its parents, concedes Jack Hollis, who heads marketing for the Toyota car brand in the U.S. That's a function of competing interests, increased auto durability and recession-honed pragmatism.
Nearly three-fourths of millennials, ages 18 to 34, would rather shop online, according to a December survey by Zipcar, the hourly car rental company. Given the choice of losing their phone or computer or their car, 65 percent would go without their car.
"This is the Xbox generation," said Scott Griffith, Zipcar's chief executive. "They manage their social lives as easily on the information highway as we did on the paved highway."
Some young people shun driving because it interferes with their texting, said Michael Sivak, research professor at the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute.
"Generally, I tend to socialize through social media — Facebook — and text messaging," said Christian Kerr, a junior in high school who does not drive.
Kerr spends times with his friends at school and at track practice.
"On the weekends, I bike or I carpool," he said. "Getting a license just isn't a priority."
Katz recently watched the movie "Avengers" on a 52-inch Samsung 3-D television at home rather than going to a drive-in — the few that still exist — or even a multiplex. When she goes out with friends, they walk to the shopping center and have lunch.
The trend holds for older teens. In 1983, 69 percent of 17-year-olds had licenses, compared with 46 percent in 2010; for 18-year-olds, the proportion declined to 61 percent from 80 percent.
"I know a lot of people who are waiting until they are 18," said 18-year-old Cat Blumberg, who hopes to pass her driver's test this month. "If I had a job, I would feel more motivated to get my license."
For the past two years, the high school senior has been carted around by her parents, friends with licenses and even her 16-year-old brother, Johnny, who did get his license.
Parents have mixed feelings about teens' lack of drive.
"It's scary to see your child get behind the wheel," said Kim Blumberg, Cat's mother. "But it will be a good thing for her. She is getting older; she will need to find a job and get that freedom and independence."
The sooner, the better for automakers, who fret as young adults pick Apples over Altimas.
"The automakers are very worried," Griffith said.
Part of the auto industry's problem comes down to simple math: "A smartphone and the bill could be $100 a month. That's a good portion of a car payment," said Cristi Landy, Chevrolet's director of small-car marketing.
The auto industry could help itself by better integrating technology into its cars, said Toyota's Hollis.
"The auto industry has not pushed itself with technology and design at the same speed as the rest of society," he said. "You would be hard-pressed to say that any automotive company has out-innovated its competition."
But fun-to-drive cars with dynamic styling can capture young buyers, Hollis said. Toyota kept that in mind when it redesigned its flagship Camry sedan, he said.
Now the percent of Camry buyers younger than 29 is 12 percent, up from 7 percent for the previous model.
Ford Motor Co. is trying to recapture young buyers on college campuses by subsidizing rental rates for its vehicles available through car-sharing services such as Zipcar.
"Once these students have been exposed to Ford products, they will be more likely to consider buying them," said Sheryl Connelly, Ford's manager of global trends and futuring.
Chevrolet is marketing to younger buyers by focusing on their shifting priorities, Landy said. "In the past, it was all about horsepower and torque, and now it is about technology, connecting to smartphones and fuel efficiency."
Chevy's Spark and Sonic models offer MyLink radio, which allows drivers to purchase a $50 BringGo smartphone app to display a navigation program and traffic updates. The system mimics an embedded navigation system, at a fraction of the cost, and also syncs with other apps such as Pandora and Stitcher music services.
Chevrolet also is working on a "mirror link" feature that would display any app deemed safe for driving on a dashboard screen.
All this will help. But what the automakers really need, said Griffith, is "an iPhone with wheels."