Millennials Force Car Execs To Rethink Business Plans

There's been a sort of collective freak-out in the auto industry about millennials and their waning interest in cars. Our series, reporting on the changing relationship between youth culture and the automobile, draws to a close.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Let's focus like a laser on this next story. For the last month, NPR and Youth Radio have been reporting on the changing relationship between the millennial generation and the automobile.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: When I try to imagine my dream car, I draw a blank and then I reach for my phone.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: The symbol of freedom isn't the car anymore.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I'm not sure that any car company really understands this generation of buyers.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: And my girlfriend drives me everywhere. So I mean, 20 years ago, I'd be considered pathetic but it's almost normal now to be that way.

INSKEEP: Some highlights from our reporting on young people and cars.

In our final installment of our series, NPR's Sonari Glinton reports that millennial driving habits are forcing auto executives to rethink how they sell cars.

(SOUNDBITE OF A CROWD)

SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: When you think about young people and car owners, you've got to look at the economy. Since I have one foot solidly in middle age, I thought I'd ask my colleague at Youth Radio, Ashley Williams, who's 19, to take the pulse of her peers.

NICOLE BROWN: Nicole Brown, 18.

ASHLEY WILLIAMS, BYLINE: Do you have a car, Nicole?

BROWN: No, I do not have a car.

WILLIAMS: Why not?

BROWN: Because it is very expensive and I cannot pay for gas at the moment.

NKOSI RICHARDSON: My name is Nkosi Richardson. I'm 17 years old. No, I'm not interested in driving right now.

WILLIAMS: Why not?

RICHARDSON: Because cars and gas are both expensive, and I have a bike.

GLINTON: And my favorite response from our very unscientific Youth Radio survey is from Vee Hines.

VEE HINES: Like you'd have to be a doctor at 17 to get a car.

ISABELLE HELMS: They are very much interested in vehicles and in car ownership. It is currently simply being delayed by whatever financial circumstance they find themselves in.

GLINTON: Isabelle Helms is a researcher with AutoTrader.com. In the last month, her company released a study that shows young want cars but for the most part can't afford them.

HELMS: What was very interesting is the few number of millennials that told us they didn't need to drive or had no interest in driving, both of those reasons came back as a single-digit responses - one at 9 percent, the other one at 6 percent.

GLINTON: There are about 80 million millennials in the U.S. It's the biggest generation outside of the baby boom. So even if a small percentage of them don't want to drive, that many millions of Americans without wheels. And that's trouble for the car business.

SUSAN SHAHEEN: They're different. But how different are they and how will that manifests itself in the future, it's difficult to know.

GLINTON: Susan Shaheen studies car sharing and bike sharing at the University of California at Berkeley. She says we don't yet if a large portion of millennials will reject car ownership forever, especially since some of life's big events haven't really happened to them yet.

SHAHEEN: Having children changes your life. I can attest to it. And it changes your, or it has impacted my feelings about mobility and instant access to a vehicle in case of an emergency.

GLINTON: Shaheen says for the vast majority of people who live in small cities and suburbs, there's little or no public transportation. And no one has found a way to make car sharing work in those parts of the country. Interestingly, car companies are seeing that as an opportunity.

John McFarland is with General Motors.

JOHN MCFARLAND: Historically, I think that as an industry you could look at car sharing as threat and say, wow, there's a trend where people no longer feel like they need to own vehicles, and that could cut into our sales, what do we do? You know, we're actually looking at it quite differently.

GLINTON: GM has a partnership with a peer-to-peer car service called Relay Rides. And right now almost every big car company has some kind of stake in a car sharing or transportation app. McFarland says, essentially, if you can't beat them, why even try?

MCFARLAND: We're looking at it as a way frankly, to reach new buyers, to reach potential new customers that may be aren't quite ready to buy a car and to own it and everything that comes with it, but are in need of transportation today.

SHERYL CONNELLY: I'm Sheryl Connelly. I'm the in-house futurist for Ford Motor Company.

GLINTON: Futurist. That's an interesting title. What does that mean?

CONNELLY: Ironically, what it means is that I spend most of my time reminding people that no one can predict the future.

GLINTON: Sheryl Connelly the futurist at Ford, says for her company to have a future, they have to think beyond the car. She Ford, for instance, has to become a consumer electronics company.

CONNELLY: We'll continue to deliver. We'll probably still always be on four wheels, but I think it'll be much more than mobility. I try to think about the future of the car as being a toolbox on wheels. What are the things you need? How can we deliver them in a timely fashion that's appropriate for the individual or appropriate for the context?

GLINTON: Context. It's likely that cars will have a central role in our lives for quite some time to come. It's just their context that's changing, or it already has.

Sonari Glinton, NPR News.

INSKEEP: Our series on young people in cars was a joint production of NPR and Youth Radio.

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