Is there any point to automakers tweaking their latest designs for young consumers? Not according to a University of Michigan study released today, according to Automotive News. Teen drivers – or potential drivers in their teen-age years, aka “Generation N” – are proving to be neutral in regards to the driving privilege. As U.S. light vehicle sales attempt to rebound from a record annual low of 10.4 million units in 2009, an ongoing lull in young drivers won’t help matters.
Fewer teen drivers care about a driver’s license
According to the joint study by University of Michigan researchers and business consulting firm AlixPartners, among U.S. teenagers aged 17 through 19, only 6 in 10 have driver’s licenses. That’s 20 percent lower than in 1982, when 80 percent of teens had a driver’s license. Researchers Michael Sivak and Brandon Schoettle of the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute observed the downward spiral that has played out over the past few years.
Thirty years ago, 87 percent of U.S. 19-year-olds had a driver’s license. Among 18-year-olds, the number was 80 percent, while 69 percent of 17-year-olds were licensed. In 2008, those numbers fell to 75 percent, 65 percent and 50 percent, respectively. In 2010, the numbers sank lower, to 70 percent, 61 percent and 46 percent.
Social media and Internet use replaces need for contact for teen drivers
Sivak believes that the technological realities of our modern age make the need for face-to-face contact unnecessary in many scenarios. Use of online social media makes contact quick and easy, and doesn’t cost by the gallon (or in this case, by the megabyte, if the user in on an unlimited data plan). He noted that shares of unlicensed drivers have dropped across all age groups, due to such advances in communications technology as online social media. The only exception has been Americans aged 25 through 29 and those over 70. Both groups saw an increase in percentage of licensed drivers.
“In our previous research, we found that the percentage of young drivers was inversely related to the proportion of Internet users. Virtual contact, through electronic means, reduces the need for actual contact,” he said.
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Bad news for automakers and civic engineers
On the one hand, fewer young drivers is an obvious threat to the profits of automakers. Teen drivers, whether they get a new car from their parents or a hand-me-down, are creating demand within the industry. If U.S. teens are turning their backs on cars because they don’t need them to reach friends, or even because vehicles are still too expensive for many, that would be one thing. But if young people are turning their backs on automobiles because public transportation is fully functional in their city (Portland, Ore., is a great example), the writing is set on the wall in permanent ink.
Not only will automakers have been served notice, but civic engineers will have to rethink the way cities are structured and how well they’re served by public transport. Consumers will speak with their tax dollars – if they even remain in hopelessly outdated cities at all.