Brannan Mason should be into cars. He's 19 years old, a sophomore at the University of San Diego, an unbridled fan of the Los Angeles Lakers. He also has an active dating life and owns at least one of everything Apple makes. But, like a lot of other young men and women today, Brannan doesn't have a car. Or even a driver license. That's all right with Mason, but it could be a problem for the auto industry.
"I've been busy with other things," Mason says. "It's not that I don't want to drive, but other things are more important. Or at least they get in the way of getting my license." In fact he's had his learner's permit — several permits — for more than two years.
Mason isn't alone in delaying his teenage driving self-gratification. In 2008 the Federal Highway Administration reported that over the previous 10 years the portion of American 16-year-olds holding driver licenses had dropped from 43.8 percent in 1998 to just 29.8 percent in 2006. That's a statistic almost unfathomable to earlier generations of drivers who would have chewed through granite to get licensed and on the road.
Beyond that, another Department of Transportation study asserts that drivers ages 21-30 have cut back on the total number of miles they drive by about 8 percent over a similar period. Throw that atop the mountain of anecdotal evidence that has every teenager hard-wired into a video game console or mesmerized by their smartphones and what was once unthinkable now seems plausible: America's youth has fallen out of love with the automobile.
It's easy to read too much into statistics. The drop in licensed 16-year-olds has also occurred while more and more public schools have dropped free driver's education courses, the cost of insuring younger drivers has increased and state laws restricting teenage licensing have grown more stringent. Plus, in the current down economy it's the young drivers who have been hit hardest — many simply can't afford to drive as much as they'd like.
"There have been a lot of changes over the years," said Alexander Edwards, president of the Strategic Vision market research firm. "A lot of folks think America's love affair with the car is over. But the Millennial youths are looking at what's out there. And it's all just as important to them as it used to be. You look at brands like Audi that are speaking to youths and they're reaching out to those youths' image of their ideal selves." But just because most members of the Millennial or Gen Y generation — roughly everyone born in the 1980s and 1990s — still see cars as an important part of their lives, doesn't mean they see cars the same way previous generations have.
"Boomers came of age when the car was the quintessential product of adulthood," explains Sheryl Connelly, Global Consumer Trends and Futuring Manager for Ford Motor Company. "In the '50s there wasn't anything else competing for their attention. Millennials, though, are Echo Boomers. The car doesn't resonate with them as it did before. Some of that is simply because driver's ed isn't free and teenage insurance is such that they just can't get beyond it. Now electronics are competing for their resources and with mobile technology, Millennials can transcend time and place." Plus, of course, it's easier to buy a $199 Kindle Fire than it is a $24,000 new car.
This doesn't necessarily mean that a smartphone is the quintessential product of adulthood today, but it does mean there are more products out there beyond cars in the matrix of goods that make a person feel like an independent adult. For many Millennials, owning those products isn't everything... as long as they can be accessed and used.
Pride in Borrowing
"Many Millennials feel tied down by a car," says Connelly. "All the responsibilities of storing and maintaining it are just a hassle. Millennials have a more fluid concept of ownership. Do they 'own' the fonts in their computer? Sites like Pandora stream music, but do they 'own' the music? There used to be a stigma to renting that doesn't exist for Millennials, as long as they get access. It's more about access than pride of ownership."
Zipcar, the car-sharing service, released a survey of Millennials and their attitude toward cars. According to Zipcar, about half of its current users are between the ages of 18 and 34 even though that age group makes up only about 23 percent of the general population. "In our second year of this survey," announced Scott Griffith, Zipcar's CEO, "one trend is abundantly clear: Millennials welcome the collaborative consumption movement with open arms, which we believe points to strong adoption of car sharing as a mainstream transportation solution for this influential segment of the population."
Zipcar is still relatively small, however. The trends it sees now may not hold up as it grows beyond its current urban centers. And sharing something Millennials think is cool, naturally, is better than sharing something boring.
What Millennials Want
Many Millennials have found they simply don't want a car and may never need one. "I have lots and lots of reasons for not wanting to drive," says Sonia Zatkowsky, a 19-year-old student at Santa Monica College in car-crazy Southern California. "I have anxiety about driving. It's a lot to focus on. And I don't trust all the other people out there to keep their focus. Instead I walk everywhere I need to go in Santa Monica. My friends have really expensive gym memberships and work on their tans. I just walk around and stay in shape and get a good tan. I'll probably never want a car."
Automakers, however, are in a race to figure out what type of product will make Mason, Zatkowsky and other young people decide a new car is just something they have to have.
"Millennials are much more critical of products," asserts Strategic Vision's Edwards. "For instance, they demand a lot of comfort because they grew up in minivans. And they don't just want any car. They want the car they want. Their attitude is often, 'I don't need to get one since the one I really want I can't get.'" In other words, many would rather hold out for an expensive new Audi later rather than drive around in an affordable, rattletrap old Chevrolet Cavalier they can get right now.
In fact, says Edwards, Millennials are consuming both print and online automotive enthusiast media at about the same rate as previous generations. And they're still looking for quality in the products they buy and/or use. "Back in the muscle-car era, a throaty engine sound meant quality," Edwards says. "That meant the engine was powerful and that it would last. The quality cues are different today, but Millennials are still looking for quality first."
Uncovering those cues has proven difficult for manufacturers. Toyota established Scion with the avowed intent of attracting Millennial buyers and, with the first xB, wound up with retirees instead. Chevrolet showed two Millennial-intended concepts at Detroit's 2012 North American International Auto Show — the boxy 130R Concept and Tru 140S Concept — that didn't seem to ignite much passion in anyone of any age.
A survey released by the Deloitte consulting firm in early 2012 indicated that six out of 10 Millennials would prefer to buy an electric or hybrid car rather than any other kind. However, in October 2011 the same firm also showed that consumers in general around the world expected electric vehicles to travel farther on a charge, charge more quickly and sell for less than current products. Millennials who are, almost by definition, less experienced drivers and car owners may well find the limitations of electric vehicles just as daunting as older age cohorts when it actually comes time to put one under their carport.
Beyond that, most Millennials have never had the chance to actually drive a V8. Who knows how intoxicating they may find the experience? That torque-rich reality could knock back many of the theoretical attractions of electrics and hybrids.
Millennials may be looking for authentic experiences in the products they buy or use, including cars. But every generation — almost every individual — has sought that throughout history. And every generation and individual has come up with their own interpretation of what precisely is authenticity.
By the time manufacturers finally figure out what kind of cars Millennials truly want, it may be time to concentrate on the generation that's coming up behind them.
A Lack of Urgency
For a generation that grew up in a culture of increasing environmental awareness, where the benefits of personal transportation are rarely acknowledged and the costs are often emphasized, it shouldn't be a surprise that teenagers don't feel the same urgency to get behind the wheel as their parents and grandparents did. And at a time of economic uncertainty, the responsibilities and expense of car ownership can seem daunting.
That doesn't mean, however, that young people aren't aware of cars or the status they still represent. Brannan Mason may not yet have his driver license, but he does occasionally cruise over to various carmakers' Web sites to indulge in some fantasyland use of their model configurators.
"When I get my career going good," Mason explains, "I've already got my Porsche 911 Turbo S all spec'd out."