November 5, 2020
“The road is calling and I must go.” Those are the words on the framed poster above my desk, hovering above the image of Porsche 911 cruising on a winding mountain road. The open road has been a siren’s call for me my entire life – but that draw, that love affair with cars and driving that has been so strong throughout America’s recent history, seems to be fading away…especially among younger generations who are more drawn to technology than shiny objects on wheels. That, however, could represent an opportunity for the auto industry to regain some of its appeal.
In early October I followed the message on that poster and took a two-day trip in my manual transmission-equipped, 2003 911 and hit the winding mountain roads of southwest Virginia, losing myself with my first true love – driving. As I carved around hairpin turns, stomping on the breaks, flicking the gear shift and hammering down on the gas pedal, I did not have to ask “When It’s Love” – it was “Right Now” and I became one with the vehicle and the asphalt below me.
Oh, how do I know when it’s love?
I can’t tell you but it lasts forever
How does it feel when it’s love?
It’s just something you feel together
When it’s love
The loss of our love affair with our cars seems like the end of an era, which is après po for this month’s blog since we only recently said goodbye to guitar legend Eddie Van Halen. When I grew up, songs like “Jump,” “Panama” and “When It’s Love” were staples played in constant rotation on the popular radio stations. Today’s music has lost its way (if you don’t believe me, I refer you to the number one song on the Billboard Hot 100 on August 22, 2020) and the end of sensational music seems to have to gone the way of our love for driving.
I know I sound like my parents, but things have seriously changed. The manual transmission in my vehicle is a dinosaur – less than 2% of vehicles produced in 2019 were equipped with three pedals on the floor and only 11% delivered power to the rear wheels. When I started driving, stick shifts at least were still found in 27% of new vehicles and rear wheel drive was found in 30%. So many features of modern vehicles have taken control away from the driver. While this has without a doubt improved efficiency and safety, I believe it also has contributed to commoditizing the transportation experience and eroded that connection between car and driver. I would love to teach my daughter to drive a stick shift when she grows up, but the trends indicate that I might have to dream another dream.
In 2014, the Transportation Energy Institute published “Driver Demographics – The American Population’s Effect on Vehicle Travel and Fuel Demand.” This report analyzed decades of data relative to the driver population of the United States, presenting trends associated with age, gender, income, household composition, employment, etc. The trends highlighted in the report lead me to assume more and more kids are saying “I’ll Wait” with regards to getting their driver’s license. It showed that the number of Americans in their 20s who possessed driver’s licenses had dropped from 91% in 1982 to 81% in 2012. It also showed that the percent of U.S. vehicle miles traveled driven by those under the age of 34 had declined from 45% 1983 to just 29% in 2009.
We have been seeing a shift in when people start to drive and how much they drive for decades…and it continues today. With the exception of those older than 60 years, every age group has seen a decrease in the percentage of its population who has a driver’s license. And it is especially pronounced among teenagers, where fewer than 50% of those 17 years of age have a license.
There are a number of reasons why young people are not driving as much as they did previously, including changes in teen licensing and driving laws in many states, as well as the high cost of vehicles, fuel and insurance which make driving unaffordable for many. I also submit that today’s youth need not travel to interact with one another, they can do so virtually through technology. This may diminish the need to drive as a means for socializing, especially since they are all packing mobile communications devices, some at a very young age.
According to a 2018 survey conducted by Common Sense, a non-profit that researches kids and their relationship to media and technology, the share of 13 – 17 year olds who have their own smartphone increased from 41% in 2012 to 89% in 2018. Common Sense also found than teens spend on average more than seven hours every day on screen media for entertainment. And Pew Research Center found that 60% of teenagers say they get together with their friends online every day, outside of school activities; by contrast, only 24% visited friends in person every day. I think it is pretty clear where these young consumers are finding their passion – through the blue light of screen-based entertainment and social networking.
Everybody’s lookin’ for somethin’
Somethin’ to fill in the holes
We think a lot but don’t talk much about it
‘Til things get out of control
But here in lies a potential opportunity to reignite an attraction to vehicles. The new vehicles entering the market are loaded with technology, and this trend is expected to accelerate. The successful features installed in new electric vehicles (e.g., large touch screen control modules) are being installed in combustion engine vehicles with very high penetration rates. Essentially, newer vehicles are beginning to resemble rolling computers more and more every year. I believe as this becomes more well known, the technology-focused younger buying cohorts will pay attention and respond positively.
The love affair with our vehicles that has existed in the past focused on style, performance, handling, speed – characteristics that were dependent upon the engineering aspects of the vehicle. Why can’t a new love affair be inspired by vehicle infotainment systems and the ability of the vehicle to keep its driver connected with their social networks (which itself increases the value of continually improving advance driver assist systems that we discussed last time). And maybe while they are enjoying the new tech features, they will experience some additional joy in exploring the world around them while navigating their vehicles.
There is a lot of uncertainty surrounding the transportation sector going forward, not least is whether younger generations will rediscover the attraction of the automobile or whether mobility will continue down the path of commoditization. Nothing is certain, but I would bet that if more people were to experience the pure joy of driving – really driving rather than just going from point a to point b – through beautiful scenery on truly interesting roadways, we might see an Eruption in new enthusiasts. Until then, I will continue standing on “Top of the World” and “Running with the Devil,” enjoying every moment behind the wheel and creating memories that can “Take Me Back (Deja Vu)” to the hey days of America’s love affair with our cars.
And to Eddie Van Halen, thank you for the soundtrack…and to everyone else, get behind the wheel, take a drive and chase your “Dreams.”
Reach for the golden ring
Reach for the sky
Baby just spread your wings
We’ll get higher and higher
Straight up we’ll climb
We’ll get higher and higher
Leave it all behind