If People Buy Tiny Houses, Will They Also Buy Tiny Cars? Futurist Trends for 2016.

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Dec 28, 2015

Let’s see, there’s Tiny House Nation, Tiny House, Big Living; Tiny House Builders; Tiny House Hunters—my family is embracing these reality shows, even though our abode is only tiny if you’re Andre the Giant.

Does all this mean we’re going to see a tiny car movement, too? So far, with cheap gas the trends for 2016 are looking rather the other way, though you’d think the same principles would apply—big houses and cars give you places to store tons of junk, which ends up cluttering your life and making you miserable.

Ford has just released its 2016 Trends Report, which takes on far more than what we’re going to be driving. For instance, it reports that a third of 18- to 34-year-olds would seriously consider living in a tiny house (100 to 400 square feet). The fact that they average $23,000 is a big selling point. Small, green cars are cheap, too. But subcompact sales are down. And in the first quarter of 2015, sales of new hybrids were just 2.7 percent of the market, a big drop from 3.3 percent in the same period of 2014.

I asked Sheryl Connelly, Ford global trend and futuring manager, if the company thinks the mania for tiny houses will lead to equal affection for tiny cars. "We reference tiny homes to showcase consumers' tendencies toward greater self reliance and appetite for ingeniously designed, multifunctional versatile durable goods," she said. "We think this might suggest an increased interest in utility vehicles, but I suppose a parallel argument can be made for small vehicles that are well equipped. In either instance it is further evidence that the era of excess is firmly behind us."

Actually, I think it's kind of simple: If you like tiny houses, you'll like tiny cars.

Americans are moving to SUVs, but the bright side is they’re buying 30-mpg crossovers, not huge gas guzzlers. Tiny SUVs aren’t yet a thing, but we’re going in that direction.

Another big trend is that, despite a general conviction that the world is getting worse, consumers are smiling. “In our four years of researching and compiling consumer trends, never have we seen optimism, resilience and self-reliance figure so prominently,” said Connelly. But a lot of people are thumbs up for Donald Trump, who seems pretty doomy to me. “The country’s in very bad shape,” he says. “The infrastructure of the country is rotted out and in decay.”

And cars. The Ford Trends Report gets to them eventually. Americans are saying they intend to keep their cars a long time—76 percent of Americans say at least 10 years (compared to only 62 percent in China and India). "That means people want vehicles that can grow with them through various life stages and life styles," Connelly told me.  

And the news on self-driving cars is mixed. Although 84 percent of Indians and 78 percent of Chinese can see themselves in a self-driving car in the future, the western numbers are lower—just 40 percent in the U.S., 38 percent in Australia and 30 percent in Britain. I think this reflects the fact that driving in the less-developed world is nerve-wracking and hugely congested. It’s getting that way everywhere, but it’s still kind of fun in the U.S. and Europe.

The same split is evident when people are asked if the benefits of autonomous machines (including cars, drones and artificial intelligence) outweigh the risks. Again, the Chinese (73 percent) and Indians (70 percent) agree enthusiastically, but the U.S. is at 42 percent, Britain at 43 percent and Spain at 60 percent.

Here’s something we agree on, though: Some 62 percent of adults under the age of 35 internationally say they “can easily imagine how I would fill my time if I was riding in a self-driving vehicle.”

The bottom line is that most people think self-driving cars are going to happen, even though they haven’t had much advance warning of this tectonic shift. “There’s no escaping the impact the rapid pace of technology has on culture,” said Connelly.

Finally, I find the report’s findings on waste to be encouraging. Around the world, 90 percent say that “society has an obligation to reuse materials and reduce the amount of trash it creates.” And 60 percent say they feel guilty about their own trash, with majorities saying they favor products made from recycled or recyclable content.

That’s relevant as auto factories go “zero waste,” and carmakers—especially Ford—are using a lot of recycled content (and novel materials) in their vehicles. Ford’s “Farm to Car” program is working with wheat straw for third row storage bins; recycled plastic bottles in the aluminum F-150 truck; recycled blue jeans and sweaters in the Fusion, Escape and Focus; and—in the future, working with Heinz—tomato fiber for wiring brackets.

But you’re wondering if Ford is actually right in the trend reports it’s been compiling for four years? The 2013 report foresaw the rise of cities at the expense of suburbs, and that’s still happening. Ford was talking about car sharing back then, which was prescient. And the company said, “Sixty is the new 50 is the new 40, which, of course, is the new 30. Thanks to down-aging, driven partly by medical innovations and prolonged life expectancy, consumers are staying forever young.”

That’s still true, right? The 2014 report talked about 3D printing, embryonic then and going mainstream now. And it noted 80 percent of its respondents agreeing with the notion that vintage products are cooler than new ones. Of course, Ford wanted to tout that notion on what was the 50th anniversary of the Mustang.

“From the racetrack to the silver screen to the airwaves to the toy box, the Mustang has become an enduring part of pop culture,” Ford said. The company celebrated by assembling a new Mustang (nine million after the first one) on the top of the Empire State Building—recreating a stunt from 1964. I missed the first one, but caught the second one.

Here's a very cute tiny house you can rent in Glen Eden, New Zealand:


Get the Car Talk Newsletter

Got a question about your car?

Ask Someone Who Owns One