As an automobile and driving aficionado for over 30 years before developing any interest in computers, the concept of driverless cars repels me as the thin edge of a wedge that has potential to put an end to the era of automotive enthusiasm.
Both veteran motorheads like me and today’s car biz executives are increasingly concerned by a general lack of interest in car culture among the millennial generations that make up today’s young adult and teenage demographic — the largest in American history — numbering 80-million-strong. There are exceptions of course. One of my daughters, just turned 30, is a lifelong car aficionado, a consummate hotrodder, and makes her living as an auto mechanic. She also likes computers, including the internal tech aspects, and has worked as a tech support consultant, including phone support for Windows XP back in the day. Nevertheless, she’s has always been a Mac (and these days iOS) fan and user by preference. Her significant other’s 18 year old daughter also has developed an interest in cars, and my daughter got her a her a summer job this year as a mechanic’s helper at the auto repair establishment of her employ.
However, this is unusual, especially I would imagine with millennial females. One might argue that it’s the apple falling not far from the tree, but my other daughter, a couple of years younger, is an academic who has never bothered to take it past the learner’s permit stage toward getting a driver’s license. Statistically that’s becoming more common with millennials. A 2011 University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute study found that 46 percent of 16-year-olds had driver’s licenses in 1978, but by 2008, the corresponding metric had dropped to 31 percent. And even teens and twenty-somethings who do get driving licenses tend to do so for utilitarian reasons rather than out automotive enthusiasm. A massive contrast with when I was a teen back in the 1960s, and almost literally counted down the days of the last year before I turned 16, as did virtually all of my male contemporaries and many of the females. Getting a driver’s license was the ne plus ultra rite of passage, whether or not one was a gearhead, although a lot of us were. I had my learner’s permit for all of eight days before taking the test, passing on the first try. “You must have done some driving before,” the examiner deadpanned. Um, well………
Alarmed, as many car people are about the future of our hobby and obsession, motorsport, car culture in general, and prospects for the automotive industry which they say “is panicked about its future”, and not least for their 60-odd year old enthusiast journal, the editors of Road & Track magazine chronicled in the May, 2013 issue how they decided to experiment with full immersion treatment on a willing New York college freshman who’s never bothered to get a driver’s license, and professes “”I don’t really pay attention to cars.” R&T flew him out to California, chauffeured him around L.A. in a Lamborghini, a Rolls Royce, and a lowrider (with collector Mark Machado); laid on some fast laps around Willow Springs International Raceway in a Porsche Carrera S driven by Le Mans winning Porsche factory race driver Patrick Long, giving him the chance to sample driving himself (on a closed parking lot course) in the 911, and a ride offroad at racing speeds in a competition prepared Ford F-150 SVT Raptor pickup with professional racer Brian Deegan. The latter seemed to make the strongest impression, the subject, Ellis Gibbard-Maiorino declaring: “I want a truck.”
Photo gallery of Ellis’ dream-car weekend can be viewed here:
But at the end of the adventure, Ellis is still equivocal. He muses about getting a used BMW 3-series as a starter car, leading Road & Track writer Brett Berk to query: “So does this mean he’s one of us now? At the very least, will he get his license?”
“It’s definitely more of a priority now,” Ellis affirms. “Maybe this summer…. But I get lazy in the summer, so who knows?”
“Why, why do teens have to act so aloof?” Berk laments rhetorically, noting that over the course of a weekend, they gave Ellis a tour of L.A. in a car costing more than many houses. A bona fide dirt stud took him massively airborne, and he got a driving lesson from a guy who sprayed champagne at Le Mans. “And yet we still can’t tell if we’ve converted the kid.” says a frustrated Berk. You can check it out at:
So why indeed? There are of course some practical reasons. R&T notes that measured in constant dollars, the price of new cars and gasoline has increased by 35 percent since the 1980s (with used cars and insurance commensurately more expensive as well); driver’s education, once free in high schools, is now a for-fee extracurricular, while youth employment has plummeted and youth debt has skyrocketed. They observe that with population gravitating toward urban centers, availability of public transit makes car ownership less necessary, and. car-sharing services like Zipcar reduce this need further, while catering to Millennials’ preference for access (think music in the Cloud) over ownership. But they speculate that the biggest barrier may be the Internet, with the smartphone having surpassed the car as the rite of passage into adulthood, with access happening much earlier than 16. The auto industry is alarmed, they report, and it has reason to be, confronted with a massive decline in its potential customer base.
Then there’s the ominously looming prospect of driverless cars. A report last week by The Register’s Richard Chirgwin says robot cars could eventually create a sales crisis for the auto industry. Chirgwin reasons, citing data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, that that half of all commuter cars sit idle from nine to five, and don’t get many hours of use aside from commuting, spending the overwhelming majority of their time doing nothing, which he says presents a huge opportunity for the cars to be multiplexed: sent on other trips carrying other passengers while they’re not needed for the daily commute. And while most people would bridle at letting strangers use their cars while they’re at work, Chirgwin’s rejoinder to that is why should it be your car? Indeed, why own a car at all? He notes that there’s a trend among millennials away from car ownership in favor of using taxis for short trips and car-share operators like Australia’s GoGet or North America’s ZipCar for longer trips. He notes that IKEA Australia even has a deal with GoGet that allows shoppers to rent one of the company’s vans for the hour or two needed to carry flat-packed furniture home.
And the driverless car provides an even more comprehensive hybrid car-share/taxi business model. Chirgwin suggests that a fleet of half a million autonomous cars supported by computer power and a smartphone app, combining a similar subscription-plus-usage model to the one that car-share firms and cooperatives already use with the ad-hoc booking model of a taxi, would be cheaper than either because of no need to fund a taxi driver’s salary, a dispatch radio network and other expenses related to a manned service, or to fund insurance for all kinds of car share drivers. If autonomous autos can be made to work, it’ll be cheaper to insure a pool of known drivers (ie: robots) and eliminate limitations on car-share multiplexing and share users having to pay for idle time on a signed-out vehicle.
Chirgwin reasons, if one subscribes to an autonomous car service with a big enough fleet, smart enough software, and the right trip price, it can be used as a taxi: request your trip on a smartphone app, walk out the door, get in the car, and get out at your destination — more efficient he argues than either car-sharing or ownership.
But where’s the fun and enjoyment in that? The prospect of sitting back and surfing the web, playing video games, or burning time in the black hole of social media on a portable device while being chauffeured by an automaton holds approximately zero appeal to me. I spend more than enough time staring at screens already. Often getting there is more than half the fun — if you’re driving.
Actually, autonomous car technology is already in consumer hands in a limited but ominous context. Honda’s new 2014 Acura RLX has a feature called “Land Keeping Assist System (LKAS), that relies on adaptive cruise control, and according to a report in Automobile Magazine (May 2013), with LKAS on and no hands on the steering wheel, the Acura can steer the car itself for intervals as long as ten seconds around gentle highway curves. Honda claims this “reduces driver fatigue,” but Automobile’s Todd Lassa notes that it also can facilitate the driver turning his or her attention to tuning the radio, fiddling with the touchscreen, or dialling a smartphone, enjoying technology that lets them “safely” text, make calls or “find that perfect iPod playlist” while driving in heavy traffic. Scary , but it could and likely will be even worse soon. Lassa cites Acura chief engineer affirming that with a few software tweaks the system could make the car even more of a self-driver, although he warns “If you overthrust the systems… You could go too far.” Hey, d’ya think?
Richard Chirgwin concedes that some people will still want or need to own cars, but contends that if the price is right, plenty will reconsider taking on debt to buy something they don’t need to and then cough up for the running costs, insurance, registration and the rest, with the AAA estimating the annual cost of owning a car in the U.S. at $9,000. He outlines a hypothetical business model for autonomous car service operations under which people will use autonomous cars, but never own one, that seems quite convincing in a dollars and cents context, which, he observes, presents a deadly threat to the auto industry, which like all businesses needs growth to survive. He notes that a contraction in the market during the 2007-’09 financial crisis sent car-makers to governments seeking bailouts, and if a driverless taxi fleet cut new car sales by just five percent, it would be a crisis for the industry, while a contraction of ten percent would be catastrophic. Those numbers, Sheryl Connelly, Ford’s manager of Global Trends and Featuring commented to Road & Track, “gave us pause.”
At least automakers can take some comfort from Google Chairman Eric Schmidt’s comment last week at Sun Valley that while the company’s self-driving automobile technology years,although not decades away from commercial availability but that “the exact way in which it all plays out is not obvious to me,” which gives them a bit of breathing space to devise and implement countermeasures.
Of course, the most desirable countermeasure would be to somehow encourage and nurture renewed popular interest in automobiles, the skills and pleasures of driving, the excitement of motorsports, and car culture in general among younger people — something that used to take care of itself automatically, but nowadays not so much, for whatever reason. However, as the folks at Road & Track discovered, that’s easier said than done.
It’s been argued and rationalized that more connected cars will help, but there’s a counter-argument that increased connectivity is more a distraction from rather than an enhancement of what used to be known as the pleasures of motoring. Personally, I’ve never been very enthusiastic about even radios and stereo sound systems in my cars over the years, much less today’s multi-featured integrated infotainment systems with touchscreens on the center stack. I take some contrarian pleasure in the fact that our main family vehicles are just old enough (2011 and 2009) to have eluded most of the car infotainment frenzy. The 2011 does have Sirius Radio, but I don’t subscribe, and never even bothered with the Sirius free trial when the truck was new. I mostly prefer just listening to the engine and road sounds (although I revile the recent fad of piping electronic generated faux engine sounds into passenger compartments). My hotrodder daughter — a major music fan — says the same thing. I love music too, but it’s hard to top the musicality of a good V-8 engine exhaling through a low-restriction exhaust system, once you’ve acquired the taste. It’s how that taste is is developed that’s key. I wish I knew.