What Scares Automakers? Young People Who Don’t Drive

There’s a trend that scaring auto manufacturers to death: Young people aren’t buying cars or driving. Statistics show that the love affair between American youth and the car appears to be as dead as disco.skoda-joyster-ads

New car purchases by people between 18 and 34 dropped by 30% between 2007 and 2012, Edmunds.com reported. If that wasn’t frightening enough, the number of miles that average Americans drive has fallen. People between 16 and 34 drove 23% less in 2009 than they did in 2001.

Even the number of young people getting driving licenses has fallen. One survey found that 22% of people without driving licenses expect to never get one. Another really worrying trend for auto companies is that an increasing number of young people see nothing wrong or strange with people who don’t own a car or don’t drive.


The big issue of discussion at this year’s Detroit Auto Show was young people and driving, The Guardian’s Dominic Rushe noted. The car industry is trying to figure out how to get young people behind the wheel.

So Why Aren’t Young People Driving?

Part of the reason is economic; the lousy economy, lack of jobs, high car prices, high gas prices, and large amounts of student loan debt conspire to make automobiles unaffordable for the young. Yet driving rates aren’t increasing as the economy picks up.

One problem is that a lot of young people got out of the habit of driving or never got into it. Many of them won’t get back into it even if they have the money to buy a car.

Then there’s electronic entertainment, namely video games. Let’s face it; driving is nowhere near as fun as Call of Duty, fantasy football, or World of Warcraft, and it’s a lot more expensive. For the price of one tank of gas, a young person can get several months of entertainment from a video game. When you play a video game, you know you’ll never get stuck in traffic or in an accident.

There’s also a cultural shift going on here; cars are no longer about the young. Take a look at the car ads and the auto-oriented television shows these days. Most of the people you see are middle aged or older. The auto industry’s target audience is a 55-year-old man.

Thirty years ago car-oriented entertainments like Miami Vice featured hip young people racing around in cool cars and the latest music. Today Top Gear shows a bunch of middle-aged English guys joking around about songs and bands the kids have never heard of. I can’t think of anything more repellant to the average 20-year-old.


Another problem is that we have a whole generation of young people that associate automobiles with mom and her minivan. A lot of kids spent their youth sitting in the backseat while mom was stuck in traffic. They associate car ownership with domestic drudgery, not freedom.

Added to that is the terrible driving experience a lot of us face every day: crowded roads, road rage, traffic jams, and unending frustration. Anybody who’s ever driven in Los Angeles or Toronto can see why a lot of people simply don’t want to drive. Making the situation worse is that in a lot of places, automobiles no longer add to mobility.

Many of today’s young people grew up seeing their parents get nothing but frustration from driving, and they want nothing to do with it. That negative experience could be the auto industry’s biggest challenge.

So What Are Auto Manufacturers to Do?

The auto manufacturers seem to be generally confused and frightened by this scenario. It’s easy to see why. Their business is designed around a new generation automatically taking out car loans at 22 and buying for the rest of their lives.

Some experts predict that young people may start buying cars when they have kids or move to the suburbs, but what if that doesn’t happen? Worse, if those people do buy a vehicle, they’re likely to buy something cheaper and more practical and to only buy one car for the family. The car of the future could be a—yikes—minivan!

We now have a generation that thinks of the car as nothing but a transportation option. If the automobile doesn’t fulfill that need, they don’t want it.

My guess is that the auto industry will survive, but it’s going to be very different in coming decades. To appeal to the new generation, the auto industry will have to get back to basics and build vehicles that actually provide cheap, practical, comfortable, and reliable transportation. It’ll also have to get to work and eliminate from the negative aspects from driving, such as gridlock, high cost, and frustration. That might be a bigger challenge for car manufacturers than we think.
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