Every morning, rain or shine, outside of my local coffee shop sits a group of aging car buffs, most of whom are retired who swoon when any classic car rolls by. Classic in this case refers to any car that was completely made of chrome and steel and built before smog control devices were dreamed up by some Sacramento legislator. Overhearing their conversations, I listen as they tell stories of their first cars; how they fixed them up, modified them and raced them. These cars provided them with identity, access to jobs, to fun with their friends, and to dates. The cars connected them to their world.
But as the author mentions young people now connect through the Internet, and the Internet is no longer a modem, a dial-up, sit down and wait affair. The Internet; their Internet is seamless, instantaneous, and ubiquitous. It is the Internet that gives young Americans their connectivity, not cars. Young people (and baby boomers) also prefer to live in urban areas forgoing the feeling of isolation found in the suburbs ("The Death of the Fringe Suburb" New York Times 11-25-2011). This change of status from car to phone has contributed to the decline in teen driving rates.
So Detroit, and in speaking of Detroit I mean the auto industry in general, has figured out that it is not high gas prices, not environmentalists, not transit and high speed rail that has dented sales of cars to young Americans, but the smartphone. Yes, it is the smartphone, or the iPhone that is changing the way this demographic sees freedom and connectivity, and Detroit is waking up and taking notice.
Yesterday morning the headline in my San Jose Mercury News business and technology section (yes I still read a newspaper, mainly for ceremonial reasons) was all the evidence I needed. The headline read "Toyota looks ahead to a 'smartphone on four wheels'". In the article Toyota President Akio Toyoda, speaking at the Tokyo Motor Show introduced a concept car called the Fun-vii that "works like a personal computer and allows drivers to connect with others with a tap of a touch-panel door." Now I not really sure what he meant by the personal computer comment, I mean no one under 25 years of age even will admit to using a "personal computer", but I get the idea. If you can't sell your car as a car, well sell it has a smart phone.
The auto industry has, somewhat late, begun to realize the need to lure these young shoppers back to the showrooms. And this is where they have an advantage. Although somewhat slow to respond to the trend, industry will always respond to change faster than government and governmental agencies. Even with the renaissance of the central city, young residents will require better transportation options; better bus systems, bike networks without gaps, bus rapid transit, connectivity to the airport, and cities that recognize pedestrians on par with automobiles. Without real attention given to alternative transportation modes we may see young people abandoning their car-free and car-lite lifestyles in favor car-centric neighborhoods.
Time will tell.