Zipcar founder Robin Chase thinks owning a car is so last century.
Twenty twenty-two will be remembered as the year Detroit’s fabled hype machine went into overdrive selling the next big thing: sexy electric dream cars. At last month’s Consumer Electronics Show in Vegas, automakers proudly rolled out their equivalents of the big finned Cadillac behemoths that dazzled American car buyers a half-century ago. This time BMW has developed a car that changes color (for the blue state suburban set), while Chevrolet hopes to woo Trump country with its first all-electric, the Silverado EV, a monster truck with more horsepower than its gas-guzzling sibling but weighing somewhere between 2.5 to 4.5 tons or almost as much as the old GMC Hummer.
But are they selling the right dream? If you are part of Gen Z, the country’s newest adults, maybe not. America’s love affair with cars is under threat by a new generation that, frankly, doesn’t seem to give a damn about owning or driving a car. Who would if we took a rational approach to our cars? There are 220 million more cars on American roads than in the 1950s. And it’s not getting any cheaper to sit in traffic: It costs almost $11,000 a year to own and operate a car.
Predicting automotive trends is a fool’s game, particularly one that spells an end to America’s obsession with cars and trucks. However, Big Auto and Big Tech are keeping a very close eye on Gen Z. This generation not only prefers to live in congested metropolitan regions but also appears to be more into “smart mobility” than owning a desirable set of wheels.
“We have an obsession with the personal freedom offered by the private vehicle and are in love with personal travel.”
According to a study by Allison+Partners, much in the way Baby Boomers redefined American car culture two generations ago, Gen Z is destined to be synonymous with a new mobility culture — reshaping our driving habits in much the way smartphones changed how we communicate. “Changing technology and lifestyles are beginning to steer America away from car-centricity and embrace ownerless ride-sharing,” Robin Chase, co-founder of car-sharing service Zipcar, told Climate & Capital. In her book Peers Inc, she argues that cars are now “platforms” and part of a new collaborative capitalist economy.
The trend is her friend. The Allison+Partners study makes a case that Gen Z would rather chill watching TikTok videos than drive. That means they don’t drive a car, much less own one. Think that is crazy? Think again. According to the study, more than 70% of Gen Z don’t even have a license. And when they do, it’s more useful for getting into bars than to drive.
This is nothing short of revolutionary. For generations of Americans, cars were everything. America’s historic passion for horsepower, torque and steamy backseat nights goes to the core of what Americans once were. “We have an obsession with the personal freedom offered by the private vehicle and are in love with personal travel,” Chase says.
But to a generation raised on Uber and Lyft, a car is just another way to get around — like the subway or a bus. Even better, you can drink if someone else, even a robot, is at the wheel. 60% of the study’s participants believe they will use autonomous vehicles by 2029.
“As consumer relationships with cars evolve, automotive and transportation industry marketers must change how they engage with younger audiences, especially Gen Z.”
Ignore the riding habits of Gen Z at your peril, warns Lisa Rosenberg, co-chair of Allison+Partners’ Consumer Marketing practice. “As consumer relationships with cars evolve, automotive and transportation industry marketers must change how they engage with younger audiences, especially Gen Z,” she says.
Carmakers are on the case. Google-related Waymo is racing to get into the ride-hailing business. Lyft, Ford and Argo AI recently launched an autonomous rideshare service in Miami. Hyundai and Motional say they plan to launch truly driverless robocars in Las Vegas in 2023. Chrysler, the parent of Jeep, Dodge and Fiat, is expanding its Free2Move car subscription and sharing services operating in 170 countries.
Elon Musk, of course, takes it one step further. He told investors in 2020 that soon-to-arrive full self-driving capabilities will allow Tesla owners to turn their cars into robotaxis whose owners can profit from letting others pay to ride in their premium sedans that might otherwise sit idle. Tesla would also profit from selling more subscriptions to its self-driving software, Musk says.
Zipcar’s Chase sees the writing on the wall. The time is coming when many Americans will see the idea of owning and driving a car as important as owning a buggy whip or as relevant as driving on a wooden toll road. It’s also a tip of the hat to the dawning of a new climate age. “It will never make environmental or financial or space-efficiency sense to transport one person in a two-ton vehicle,” she says. Roger that.