Teens today just aren't as eager to drive as they used to be. Proof? A 2011 University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute study found that while 46 percent of 16-year-olds had driver's licenses in 1983, only 31 percent had them in 2008. Sure, the recent fragile economy and the exponential costs of owning a car are contributing factors, but according to several media reports, so are smartphones and social media. The freedom offered by automobiles to teens of Gen X, has been replaced by the non-stop communications (texting, video chat, social media updates) provided by mobile devices for Gen Y. (This commercial from Toyota pretty much sums it up.)
If you're an auto manufacturer, news like this can be worrisome. Where are your future customers? How do you get teens interested in cars again? Answer: Make the car more like a mobile phone or tablet. If you look at where car design is going, it's happening right now. Consider exterior colors: Silver was king for over a decade. But according to a lead designer at BMW, white emerged as the new "most popular" color in 2012. The reason? The Apple iPhone. (Note to auto industry regarding the latest gold iPhone: please, don't do it.)
Having a lot of buttons, knobs and switches used to imply "high tech" and "advanced" in cars, yet often resulted in clutter. Look at a smartphone or tablet. Do you see a bunch of buttons? No. You see a sleek, clutter-free touchscreen that allows you to access everything. Volvo and Subaru are going in this direction. Tesla, which has roots in the tech hub of Silicon Valley, already has a 17-inch touchscreen in its centerstack.
Auto manufacturers are also taking cues from today's popular apps to improve the use experience. Mercedes Benz, for example, has a number of apps as part of its second generation in-car technology offering, called "mbrace." Mercedes Benz and Audi also offer Google Apps to help customers shop, schedule service, call for roadside assistance and more. Even more fascinating is what GM and VW are up to—the concept of completely personalizing your car like you do with your smartphone. From the moment you purchase your car, your car "learns" about you and your preferences such as radio stations, schedules, routes and destinations, and more. Imagine just getting into your car and your preferred radio station or playlist comes on, your seat temp is adjusted, and the navigation system alerts you to traffic congestion on your regular commute route to work—and offers three optional routes for you to take. Very convenient, right? Of course, privacy advocates are concerned that your car will be spying on you. I think ultimately there will be a balance—car owners will be given the opportunity to opt in/out or turn off specific features… just like they can with their mobile devices.
It's obvious where auto manufacturers are headed, but the industry is not known for making sudden changes in direction—they have to be slow and methodical when developing a car, balancing new technology with safety hazards. Lead time to design cars is much longer than it is with smartphones. By the time a car gets the green light to be built, a few years might have passed by—a virtual eternity in smartphone design. All I can say is manufacturers better hurry, because Gen Y is diving deeper into the magic of the smartphone and the digital world every day. And Gen Z, the generation that will have lifelong use of the Web, texting, MP3 players and mobile phones are going to be an even tougher sell. The auto manufacturers that do survive will be those that adapt quickly and accordingly.