Car Problems

20 04 2012

When I was a teenager, the most important thing was getting a driver’s license and the keys to the car. Nothing said freedom louder than being able to head out with your friends. Minus Mom and Dad.

For many decades, the car has served as symbol not only of adolescent freedom, but also a metaphor of the American lifestyle. The rapidly growing US highway system from the 1920s onward showed our collective love for motorized transport, as well as an almost genetic wanderlust. Route 66 grabbed our imagination by the tailpipe; Steinbeck even used at front and center in The Grapes Of Wrath. In fact, the fascination many people have today for Route 66 is a reflection of that American ideal; if time travel were only possible, I am convinced that many of my roadie friends would willingly go back just to see what it was like when the car was king.

But all that is showing signs of change these days, especially as Generation Y, aka the Millennials, come of car-buying age. One study shows that Millennials often just say “meh” when it comes to cars, while another study shows they are in fact intimidated with buying one.

The fact of the matter is, there are a lot of Millennials out there (depending on how you define the cohort, there could be as many as 80 million). And the future of the automobile industry is hinging in large part on how many cars (and how often) they buy.

Given the decided indifference toward cars, this generation may foretell tough times for Detroit and Tokyo. And it is not for lack of trying, either. American and Japanese makers are trying gallantly to unlock the mind of the 21C young adult, offering up a mix of inexpensive as well as eco-friendly cars, many of which have dashboards filled with gadgetry and connectivity.

But what if Millennials do not buy cars like my generation, the Baby Boomers, have done? What if Millennials decide that urban living and a softer environmental footprint are more important? What if walking and mass transit are more desirable?

Sure, these notions raise howls out here in West Texas, where pickup trucks are de rigueur and parking spaces an entitlement. I am pretty much convinced my little Hyundai Sonata could limbo under one of those behemoths without scraping the roof. After living out here for 23 years, I am still perplexed at the appeal of such large vehicles, especially if you don’t actually use such a vehicle in your line of work. But what do I know? I am from Chicago, where it currently costs $50 a day to park downtown. Cars bad; tennis shoes good.

With Millennials growing up in the era of relatively high gasoline prices, it appears that sentiments are changing. Admittedly, it is easier to change habits when they are young or not even formed; it would be much harder for older folks to alter lifestyles that have been allowed to set (even if they have to try). In other words, it is entirely possible that we are witnessing the beginning of a culture shift among Millennials, one that focuses on smaller and simpler, and maybe even avoidance.

I realize this is not good news for anyone in the automotive industry (or oil and gasoline, for that matter), but we would get over it. We always have. It just means we would have to roll up the sleeves of resilience and figure out how to make it all work.

In the mean time, car makers have their hands full trying to figure out how to get Millennials to buy cars, because it turns out the same old tricks just are not working like they once did. The automotive ego is not what it once was.

And freedom from Mom and Dad, for city dwellers at least, may now mean hopping on the bus or train with your friends. It’s cheaper. In many cases, it is faster. And there’s seldom a traffic jam.

Dr “I Could Car Less” Gerlich




2 responses

20 04 2012

The husband and I dropped our two cars like hot rocks when we moved to the northeast (well, I wish it had been that easy, but let’s just say we got rid of them). Living in Boston, with the oldest subway system in the country and plenty of buses, taxis, and commuter trains to boot, we’ve fully engaged ourselves in the ‘sans car’ lifestyle. You’re right to think that our generation doesn’t much car about the once-revered automobile. Many of my friends have whatever car they could get there hands on, and they use it until it dies. However, you’d be surprised at how many people (and their chosen lifestyles) still depend on a car. Even though a million of us commute into work on the train, many of them keep a car at home, or drive to the station to take the train. Everyone in my office drives, because they commute from outside the city. While those of us who live within city limits, especially students, opt to go out without a vehicle, there are many, many more who would rather not. My advice – especially to those in West Texas (whom I miss and love dearly) – use your God-given transportation more often. My feet can carry me miles, whether it’s running or walking. After spending years in a car, it amazes me how far I can get on my own, and how much more relaxing the experience of a 10-minute walk can be, as opposed to a 10-minute drive.

20 04 2012

Preach it! Well-said, and thank you so much for your insights. What I wouldn’t give to pay another visit to Boston. I loved walking and taking the subway everywhere, even biking the Freedom Trail early on a Sunday morning.

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