Could an Apple iCar Ignite Automotive Enthusiasm for Car-Indifferent Millennials?
What is it with younger folks and cars these days? Or more accurately, what isn't it?
Growing Up with Cars
When I was a teenager, pretty well all of my male chronological peers were motorheads. Indeed, anyone of that demographic who wasn't a car enthusiast was considered, well, a bit of an oddball. We typically spent a lot more time on automotive topics than we did talking about girls. We impatiently awaited our 16th birthdays and the rite of passage - a driver's license. I got mine eight days after I turned 16, and I only waited that long because the motor vehicle registry examiner only showed up in our little rural townlet for one day every two weeks.
I, of course, had been driving, discreetly, on back roads in relatives' and family friends' cars and trucks, and on farm tractors, for years before becoming legal. This wasn't particularly unusual at the time. It was a different world in the 1960s. Indeed, I was a veteran car freak by the time I turned 16.
I can't remember a time when I wasn't fascinated by cars. From my earliest memories as a child, my favorite toys were my little cars and trucks. A large proportion of my allowance went buying hot rod comic books (a genre that, like war comics - another category I avidly consumed - no longer exists except for collectors), and later serious car enthusiast magazines. I still subscribe to three. I was also heavily into slot car racing for several years.
It has been a lifetime's consuming interest for me, but as I say, just about every male person I knew growing up, including a large proportion of adults as well as kids, was interested in cars.
Teen popular culture in the '60s was strongly car oriented. The Beach Boys, Jan and Dean, and other chart-topping pop/rock artists of the day sang about cars. I could go on.
Growing Up with the Internet
However, what sparked this reverie is a new study by University of Michigan researchers that finds more young adults these days would rather be cruising the information highway than the open highway. In their study, published March 29 in the journal Traffic Injury Prevention, Michael Sivak and Brandon Schoettle of the U-M Transportation Research Institute at Ann Arbor found that a higher proportion of Internet users was associated with lower driver's licensure rates among young persons - not just in the United States, but in other countries as well.
According to a U-M press release, Sivak and Schoettle examined recent trends in the United States and 14 other countries in the percentage of persons with driver's licenses as a function of age. They found that half of the other countries (namely Canada, Great Britain, Germany, Japan, Sweden, Norway, and South Korea) have experienced a similar age-related patterns of changes in driver licensing as the United States, a decrease in young drivers and an increase in older drivers proportionally.
They note that in 1983, one-third of all licensed drivers in the United States were under age 30. Today, only about 22% of drivers are twentysomethings or teenagers. Moreover, about 94% of Americans in their 20s had a driver's license in 1983, compared to only about 84% in 2008.
This, of course, is not an earth-shattering revelation. Two years ago, the Washington Post reported that today's texting and social media generations have largely pronounced driving seriously lame, with only about 30% of 16-year-olds having acquired driving licenses as of 2008. In my day that metric would have been more like 90% or greater, at least in my neck of the woods, but most city-dwelling members of my teenage circle of friends and acquaintances had their licenses by the time they hit 17 as well. With no Internet, no cellphones, no texting, and no social media, cars were the central locus of our social interaction. If you've ever seen American Graffiti, you have a rough idea.
In a commentary last week, Forbes' Contributor Dale Buss cites a Gartner research finding that 46% of drivers aged 18 to 24 said they would choose Internet access over owning a car, also noting that according to the Federal Highway Administration, only 46% of potential drivers 19 years old and younger had driver's licenses in 2008, down from 64% just a decade earlier.
Another survey by the car-sharing service ZipCar found that a whopping 68% of Millennials, up 14 points from 2010, sometimes chose to amuse themselves with social media rather than go out to see friends and family, and 55% have actively made an effort to drive less - up 10 percentage points from 45% in 2010, mostly citing reasons such as environmental concerns, high cost of vehicle ownership, and more use of social media.
Has Driving Become Too Easy?
Needless to say, the fact that Millennials typically care much less about vehicles than they do about the next iPhone is deeply troubling to automakers concerned that most of that generation would typically rather surf the web than drive a car. Eddie Alterman, editor of Car and Driver magazine - a journal I've been reading since the early 1960s - thinks that one reason may be that driving skills required nowadays are less engaging, noting what he considers a shrinking selection of vehicles equipped with manual transmissions. Alterman notes that even Ferrari no longer offers a three-pedal option on several of its latest models. Ford hasn't offered manual transmissions on its F-150 pickup truck for several years now either. I made a point of ordering a manual gearbox on the Ford Ranger I recently purchased, but Ford is discontinuing the Ranger in North American markets once the last 2011 models are sold off.
Eddie Alterman thinks that if it were still necessary to learn how to operate an entire car, and not just the steering wheel and occasionally the brakes, cultivating driving skills would have more appeal and younger individuals would find driving more enjoyable if they could experience the sense of control imparted by the third pedal - the excitement that accompanies a perfectly timed heel-toe downshift.
Alarmed at the implications of an all-automatic automotive world, Alterman a couple of years ago launched a Save The Manuals campaign.
Marketing Cars to Millennials
Automakers are scrambling to somehow discover the way to greater relevance for the 75 million strong Millennial generation by piling more and more heavily wired (and wireless) feature sets into their latest models, such as Ford's Sync infotainment platform or a system Volkswagen displayed at the 2011 the Geneva Auto Show incorporating infotainment control via a removable Apple iPad docked in the van's center console that serves as a multifunctional touchscreen, hoping to attract business from a consumer demographic that cares little about (or is just oblivious to) traditional automotive attributes like horsepower, handling, and the fun-to-drive factor. They evidently have an uphill battle on their hands. Forbes' Buss notes that according to MTV Scratch, a consulting unit of the youth-oriented TV channel, not one car brand ranked in the top 10 in a recent survey of Millennials on which of 31 product brands of all types that they preferred.
There are exceptions of course. My 30 year old daughter, an early millennial, who learned to drive on a manual gearbox Austin A55 I gave her when she was 13, is an avid hotrodder, as well as being highly knowledgeable about computers and other electronic gadgets. Actually, there's quite a bit of crossover, given the massive shift to computerization in automobiles. A chip off the old block, she shares my passion for cars but acknowledges that most of her fellow gearhead friends tend to be middle-aged rather than her chronological contemporaries. The tuner automotive subculture does represent a more youthful demographic, but she's old-school, and loves big American cars with honking big V8s.
The vexing conundrum for me is why the passion for automobiles and car culture that so strongly influenced and motivated my generation is attracting so little new blood these days. Economics is no doubt a factor. The costs associated with owning and running even an old, relatively cheap used auto have inflated obscenely over the past 45 years. However, it can't be entirely money.
The trend of youth indifference to automobiles began long before the economy went into the toilet in 2008. Dale Buss says that the importance of digital connectivity to Millennials appears to be interfering with their interest in automobiles rather than contributing to it. But even that puzzles me. Why does it have to be a zero-sum equation - either-or? I like and enjoy cars as much as I ever did, but have also been into computers for more than two decades now and find that the two interests complement each other.
Why Not an Apple Car?
Steve Jobs, like the preponderance of boomer males, was an automobile aficionado, in his case with a partiality for German marques. Over the Jobs years at Apple, the notion of an Apple-branded - or at least themed - "iCar" automobile has been dangled tantalizingly before crossover Apple and automobile enthusiasts for years. Apple is rumored to have a "secret internal department" at Cupertino specializing in transport-related product development, although it's unclear whether that means car accessories, car information systems, or even a full blown iCar.
Back in 2007, Jobs met with Volkswagen's then CEO Dr. Martin Winterkorn in California to discuss possibly integrating the iPod, iPhone, and other Apple products into an automobile - with blogosphere speculation about possibly even an Apple/VW joint venture "iCar" project, but nothing evidently came of the latter. However Apple iPod and iPhone support is now offered on many motor vehicles.
Could an iCar still happen? Steve Jobs, alas, is gone, and Tim Cook and Jonathan Ive are post-boomers. However, Ive reportedly drives a Bentley, indicating that he at least has good automotive taste.
iStream City Cars
Automotive designer Gordon Murray, whose name is most famously associated the top-tier and highly-successful McLaren Formula 1 motor racing team where he was technical director for a couple of decades until 2006, thinks an Apple iCar could be a market success. "Someone like Apple could very easily make a car," Murray told Pocket-Lint's Stuart Miles in 2010, referencing his current preoccupation - his T.25 (gasoline-powered) and T.27 (all-electric) iStream city car designs, which were the focus of his Apple car comment.
The T-cars are a radically innovative concept for a new type and class of personal transport vehicle that incorporates Formula 1-derived materials philosophy and technology coupled with chassis frame design that provides an immensely strong structure ("safety cell") both in "end" and "side" impact scenarios. Murray's iStream car manufacturing process massively reduces the capital investment required to produce the vehicle and also the energy required for manufacture, and for which the design firm is offering a sort of turnkey license arrangement to prospective marketers.
The iStream assembly process amounts to a complete rethink and redesign of traditional automotive manufacturing techniques. Murray claims it could potentially be the biggest revolution in high volume vehicle manufacture since Henry Ford's Model T, and as such it would dovetail harmoniously with Apple's innovative industrial design philosophy.
The simplified iStream assembly process means that the manufacturing plant can be jut 20% of the size of a conventional automobile factory, which could reduce capital investment in the assembly plant by approximately 80%, while the flexibility of this assembly process would allow the same factory to be used to manufacture different variants or even different brands simultaneously. The iStream design process also facilitates a significant reduction in CO2 emissions over the lifecycle of the vehicles produced using it, compared with conventional ones.
Murray's iStream T.2x City Cars are designed around a central driving position dubbed Apple-esque ‚"iCentre", which offers six six internal layouts within the same vehicle, configuration conversions claimed to be easily achieved within 30 seconds.
The iMove Concept Car
Murray's iStream isn't the only Apple iCar proposal from a European designer. Another is the iMove concept, conceived by its designer to appeal to Mac-users who would embrace driving more than just basic transportation and be open to the city car of the future
Twenty-two-year-old Italian transportation design student Liviu Tudoran says the idea behind his iMove concept was to create what he perceives as an Apple Macintosh electric car engineered to break the general idea of conventional vehicles for the year 2020 would be like. "Keeping in mind the main characteristics, design language, and culture of the brand," he explains, taking his inspiration from Apple Macintosh products, and the lifestyles of people who use them.
Tudoran notes that the Macintosh is an "exclusivistic" brand with a distinct personality and a specific range of target buyers. He deduces that Mac users are individuals who would also be eager to drive more than just basic transportation - and open to the concept of an electric vehicle designed to be a city car of the future.
Most of the iMove's body skin would be made of transparent materials doing double-duty as solar collector panels, including the roof. The all-electric, zero-emissions iMove, its body shape inspired by Apple's Macintosh mouse. would carry three passengers and their luggage, with custom interior configurations available to suit the owner's needs and preferences. The iMove's luggage compartment would be enclosed by a lid made of "an elastic textile material," and equipped with retaining straps to secure oversized contents with the lid open.
As noted, the iMove's roof would be covered with solar cells to passively charge the vehicle's batteries and electronic dashboard, and openable in fair weather for a "cabriolet effect." Both the roof and visor-style windshield/canopy will swing upward to facilitate easy ingress and egress to/from the iMove's interior accommodation.
Exterior trim and color variations would be customizable to suit the user's personal taste. Inspired by the original, rainbow-hued Apple logo, the iMove would be finished with a photochromic coating material that would enable the user to change the vehicle's appearance using different preset themes.
Advantages for Apple in officially licensing an Apple-branded iCar would include extension of the iOS ecosystem into the automotive orbit, while the halo association with Apple chic would make such a venture advantageous for an established automaker like VW. It might even attract auto-oblivious Millennials, just as Apple's rethinking of tablet computing revolutionized that sector. Hopefully, you would be able to get an iCar with a manual gearbox too.
iMove images copyright Liviu Tudoran 1989-2011. Used by permission.
Charles Moore has been a freelance journalist since 1987 and began writing for Mac websites in May 1998. His The Road Warrior column was a regular feature on MacOpinion, and he is a news editor and columnist at Applelinks.com. If you find his articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.
Recent articles by Charles W. Moore
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