Drove my Chevy to the levy and pushed it in – the future of cars

August 1st, 2012 | By Glen Hiemstra | Posted in Art & Society, Business & Economy | 2 Comments

Beware the permanent trend.

What would happen if a generation stopped driving cars, or at least stopped dreaming that owning a car and driving everywhere was their defining passage into adulthood? What if each year auto ownership and miles driven declined? It would be the end of a seemingly permanent trend toward ever more miles driven and greater car ownership.

I first began seeing signs of this emerging trend (or better, trend reversal) in 2010, as I was producing a study for the state of Idaho on the 30-year future of transportation and economic development in Idaho. In that study I noted the following, based on a 2010 article in Advertising Age:

The Millennial generation…is not only very large – larger than the Baby Boom generation – but different in an important way. They are first computer and Internet generations, having grown up since infancy with computers, 24/7 network access, cell phones, blue-tooth enabled cars, and so on. They approach most life activities differently, that is, they approach them using the network first.

One critical example for the future is recent research showing, for the first time since the advent of the automobile, a youth generation less likely to own a car, drive a car, or have a drivers license than the previous generation. As reported in Advertising Age,

“In 1978, nearly half of 16-year-olds and three-quarters of 17-year-olds in the U.S. had their driver’s licenses, according to Department of Transportation data. By 2008, the most recent year data was available, only 31% of 16-year-olds and 49% of 17-year-olds had licenses, with the decline accelerating rapidly since 1998. Of course, many states have raised the minimum age for driver’s licenses or tightened restrictions; still, the downward trend holds true for 18- and 19-year-olds as well and those in their 20s.

It’s not just new drivers driving less. The share of automobile miles driven by people aged 21 to 30 in the U.S. fell to 13.7% in 2009 from 18.3% in 2001 and 20.8% in 1995, according to data from the Federal Highway Administration’s National Household Travel Survey released earlier this year.” (Advertising Age, (http://adage.com/digital/article?article_id=144155) May 31, 2010)

This dramatic decline in driving behavior by young people occurred in a period when the percentage of the national population aged 21-30 actually increased slightly. The explanation goes well beyond restrictions on driving for 16-18 year olds, into a shift in values and behavior. Interest in cars has waned. They have become more expensive. Interest in digital communications has sky-rocketed. Digital communication has become less expensive. Young people in 2010, and adults in 2030 may find it far easier to text, to do computer-based work, and generally to stay connected while using public transportation rather than when driving a car. Even as legislatures around the nation ramp up bans on digital communication while driving, the desire to conduct work while commuting will continue to increase. All of these factors, combined with technology advances themselves, may make driving behavior in 2030 not at all like behavior prior to 2010.

Now comes more recent evidence supporting this trend. In a piece entitled “Goodbye James Dean,” Phineas Baxandall, senior analyst at the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, observes that Americans drove a billion fewer miles in April 2012 than they did in 2011, despite a somewhat better economy. Moreover, in a reversal of a six-decade trend to ever-increasing miles driven, Americans were already driving 6 percent less in 2011 than they were in 2004. Baxandall noted,

…the decline is particularly strong among young people. Americans between 16 to 34 years of age drove a whopping 23 percent fewer miles in 2009 than in 2001. These same youth increased their bicycle riding by 24 percent and increased their miles on public transit by 40 percent.

In addition to driving fewer miles, young people are leading the way to a declining percentage with driver’s licenses. The decline has been especially dramatic for men ages 20 to 34, falling from nearly 95 percent with a license to under 80 percent with a license, depending on the age cohort.

How much of this due to unemployment making it too difficult to own a car, versus the trend representing a true values shift, we will have to wait and see following a more robust economic recovery. But the love affair with cars may be wearing out as people opt for a less car-dependent life style. So concerned with a possible shift in consumer behavior are Ford and GM that they have both initiated research and marketing efforts aimed even more specifically at Millennials.

Glen Hiemstra is a futurist, author, speaker, consultant, Founder of Futurist.com, and founder and Curator of DoTheFuture.com. To arrange for a speech, workshop or consultation contact Futurist.com.

2 Comments

  1. Carter Mackley
    Aug 2, 2012

    Insightful. This is the first article in the blogosphere that I have seen describing this trend. But now that you mention it, this trend is observable among my teenage kids and their friends. The only thing I would add is that high gas prices during the last year especially have made a difference, but I think Glen is right that it is more than that. Digital activities are supplanting other activities (including driving) and making actual commuting and travel less necessary.

    • Glen Hiemstra
      Aug 2, 2012

      Carter,
      Our kids are prime examples as well. One lives in Seattle, mostly bikes. Another and husband live in Seattle, mostly bus. And the other and husband live in downtown San Francisco, mostly bus (including Google bus) or Bart. All drive much less than I did at similar age, especially for work. They drive mostly for personal trips, weekends, and such.
      Glen