RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Over the last few weeks, NPR and Youth Radio have been exploring the relationship between cars and a new generation of young Americans, a relationship that appears to be waning. Millennials drive less. They get their licenses and cars later. So what is the auto industry doing about it? NPR's Sonari Glinton and Youth Radio's Noah Nelson report car companies are learning some lessons from smartphones.
SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: Noah, often when I report about competition in the auto industry, it's, you know, Volkswagen versus Toyota or the Honda Accord against the Ford Fusion.
NOAH NELSON, BYLINE: Yeah, Sonari, but as we've been reporting, the whole car business is competing for attention with media and consumer electronics.
JOHN MCFARLAND: I'm not sure that any car company truly understands this next generation of car buyers.
GLINTON: That's John McFarland. He's a director at General Motors. And he's also in that next generation of car buyers. He says cars used to represent freedom. Now everyone knows, including car makers, that's not true anymore.
NELSON: I mean that's where we started with this series and we've learned that freedom for millennials...
GLINTON: And almost everyone else...
NELSON: ...is now the cellphone.
GLINTON: And GM's John McFarland says car companies need to deliver more than just cars.
MCFARLAND: We absolutely have to deliver a car that is beautiful to look at and that drives as they want it to, but we also need to overlay some of the things that they expect now from other industries in order to - to kind of reignite that relationship.
GLINTON: What the savvy people in the car business say is that they have to look outside their industry to learn, from cellphones, apps, computers, video games.
NELSON: Exactly. For the car companies, the writing is on the wall, and if you can't beat them...
CHUHEE LEE: We can make the car that's becoming part of your digital life.
GLINTON: That's Chuhee Lee. He's the deputy director at Volkswagen's Electronic Research Lab in Belmont, California, a little town at the north end of Silicon Valley. This is where Volkswagen comes up with all the high-tech ideas they put into their vehicles, especially their high-end Audi brand.
ALLEN GERARD: Actually there's a button on the left...
NELSON: VW's Alan Girard let me play around with its sport sedan, the S7.
ALAN GIRARD: That's night vision. That's a thermal camera. You can see how much the body temperature of a human really stands out.
GLINTON: Volkswagen's vision boils down to this: bring their cars into the digital world, make them an extension of all the services millennials already love.
LEE: The car should be intelligent enough to interact with other intelligent systems around you, you know, a smartphone being very intelligent about your schedule, trying to propose and make arraignments kind of for you.
NELSON: Lee talks about turning your whole car into sort of a voice-activated system like Siri.
GLINTON: And John McFarland from GM says his company, like VW, is working on cars that learn your habits - schedules, destinations, radio stations. And it gets better with time, which is sort of different from the way we buy cars now.
MCFARLAND: The day you buy it, it's kind of at its best, right? The second you drive it off the lot...
NELSON: It better be.
MCFARLAND: Yeah, absolutely, it's at its best. But we think there's opportunity to make it so that the day you drive it off the lot is the beginning, and you continue to personalize it and customize it and add new content, just like you do with a phone.
NELSON: And if VW's Chuhee Lee has his way, when you trade in your car, like when you trade in your phone, you'll get to take all that with you.
LEE: It's the knowledge that vehicle collected over time that I don't have to retrain my car again once I get my new Audi or Volkswagen.
NELSON: This is where Silicon Valley meets Detroit - connected, intelligent cars, and it's coming to a dealership near you, soon-ish.
GLINTON: But Noah, while an Audi S7 is definitely a pretty car, what millennial do you know that can spend 80 grand, 80 Gs, on a car?
NELSON: Justin Bieber?
GLINTON: Exactly. The car companies would be happy to get a Justin Bieber or two, but the real challenge is to get his fans, the beliebers.
NELSON: To get them, the car companies have to put some of their most innovative, expensive technology in their cheapest cars.
GLINTON: That expensive technology is always changing, and while tech companies can stop on dime, it's a lot harder to do the same with a 2,000-pound vehicle.
JEREMY ANWYL: One of the unstated questions is, what should we be doing in our vehicles? Should we be messing with a lot of this stuff at all or should we just be paying attention to driving?
GLINTON: That's Jeremy Anwyl. He's a vice chairman at Edmunds.com. And he says because of safety, car companies are always going to be slow to the draw technology-wise.
NELSON: Tech companies love taking risks, but with cars the stakes are higher.
ANWYL: You can't have the car reboot as you're driving down the freeway and all the systems collapse and all of a sudden it creates all kinds of problems. The need around, say, smartphone technology, certainly we wouldn't like it if they keep rebooting, but it's not going to put our life in peril.
GLINTON: Right now, as good as some of the car infotainment systems are, many of them are just not as easy or intuitive as your average smartphone.
ANWYL: This is not their forte. They understand styling. They understand how to make a car look lower and leaner. There's a lot of functionality that you want to deliver to consumers in a way that's not confusing and it's intuitive, and most importantly, you know, they can actually access underway without any safety risks. It's asking a lot.
GLINTON: It is asking a lot, but all the car companies say they're getting there.
NELSON: But getting there might not be good enough in a world where last month's hot gadget is next week's trade-in.
GLINTON: What we don't know is if millennials are willing to wait around a couple of years for the car companies to catch up.
NELSON: I'm Noah Nelson.
GLINTON: I'm Sonari Glinton, NPR News.
MONTAGNE: And Noah Nelson is a reporter for TurnstyleNews.com, a project of Youth Radio.