Not in Love: Americans Losing Their Passion for Cars

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Sep 04, 2015

As Washington Post columnist and senior editor Marc Fisher sees it, “For nearly all of the first century of automobile travel, getting your license meant liberation from parental control, a passport to the open road. Today, only half of millennials bother to get their driver’s licenses by age 18. Car culture, the 20th-century engine of the American Dream, is an old guy’s game.” Kids, well, they love their smartphones.

Did places like Mel's Drive In really exist? No, it's a recreation at Universal in Orlando. (Scott Kinmartin/Flickr)Wow, doesn’t that make me feel old. Gone are the days when my daughters could feel cool because their dad wrote about cars for a living. I’d get more respect if I worked for Apple.

But the bug bit early. I got my license (and my first car) at 16, had car posters on the wall, read Car and Driver religiously (even though I only understood about half of it). The high school parking lot was like an artist’s gallery—the self-expression of hormonal youth.

But then, the cars of the 1960s and early 1970s were worth caring about. The GTO, the Roadrunner, the Judge, the Barracuda? C’mon. I don’t blame the kids for not getting excited about T-Birds with opera windows, or Chrysler Cordobas (even with Ricardo Montalban and the “Corinthian leather.”

These folks were really into their cars. (Clotho98/Flickr)Something bothered me in Fisher’s piece, though, so I called him up. He cites the decline of vehicle miles traveled (VMT) since 2007 as a sign that people are losing interest in driving. Ah, but he also notes that VMT has been creeping up again, which suggests to me that the whole decline was simply because of expensive gas—not America’s fading love for the automobile.

Fisher had an answer for this, though. “The first few years of decline are a reflection of the recession,” he said. “We saw a dramatic drop in miles traveled. But if you look more closely at the demographic breakdown, while VMT has begun to rise again, it has continued to decline for young people. They’re moving away from a total reliance on the car, though they’re still using them, of course, to get things done.” This generation got carted around by their parents; the action wasn't behind the wheel, it was in the backseat, bickering with your brother.

Fisher believes the auto industry is “quite cognizant” of the trend, and is trying to accommodate it by, for example, making a deal with the devil known as car sharing. It’s interesting to note that peer-to-peer car sharer Getaround has signed deals with Fiat and Audi, the gist of which is that if you share your car, you’ll have more disposable income and thus be able to upgrade your ride with an attractive (and discounted) auto lease.

Yesterday's hangout. Today, cellphones create community. (Roadhouse Pictures/Flickr)It’s a lifestyle thing. As Fisher points out, it’s now quite easy, enabled by the smartphone, to inhabit one of our major metropolitan areas (especially along the coasts “and have a full life without owning a car.” There’s Uber, Lyft, Getaround, Relay Rides and more—wheels are a phone call away, when you need them. And the phone is also your gateway to calling your friends and begging a ride.

Our times are reflected in the TV we watch, Fisher said. Gone are auto-oriented shows like Knight Rider, Herbie, My Mother the Car. “We have the Fast and the Furious, but that’s more of a niche thing,” he said.

Freedom! The open road! A driver's license! (Stekelbes/Flickr)I’d ask my daughters to be expert witnesses here, but I don’t want to see the rolling eyes. They both finally got their licenses, but one waited until she was 18. They drive, but car crazy they’re not. The older one once expressed admiration for VW Bug convertibles, and the younger one liked the color of a Chevy Spark test car I had.

Nationally, only 70 percent of 19 year olds have licenses today, down from 87 percent 20 years ago. AAA reports that most teenagers these days don’t get their access pass to freedom within a year of being eligible.

Custom cars were a form of self expression like, say, an iPhone case. (MJI Photos/Flickr)Autonomous cars will do quite a lot to accelerate this trend, since we may be sharing, not even owning them. You’ll summon one like you’d call a taxi. Maybe they’d all look alike. Fisher doesn’t see this happening—he thinks we’ll still be personalizing our rides. “I don’t think we’re about to enter an episode of the Jetsons,” he said.

But the bottom line is the Golden Age of the Automobile is drawing to a slow but steady close. As you recall, those Jetson cars folded up into briefcases, and it’s hard to love a briefcase.

For kicks (do those still exist?) here's a closer look at Herbie the Love Bug, from the dim past when car obsession was common. Note the glorious rides dying in the demolition derby:

 

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