Article by Greg Wilson; photo courtesy

A recent study by the University of Michigan Research Institute (U-M) revealed that fewer drivers under 30 are getting their driver’s licences while the number of older drivers is actually increasing. The study by researchers Michael Sivak and Brandon Schoettle of the U-M Transportation Research Institute examined the percentage of people with driver’s licences as a function of age. In 1983, a third of all licensed drivers in the United States were under the age of 30 — today it is down to 22 percent. Furthermore, about 94 percent of Americans under 30 had a driver’s licence in 1983, compared to about 84 percent in 2008. The study found a similar decline in half of the 14 countries studied, including Canada, Great Britain, Germany, Japan, Sweden, Norway, and South Korea.

Another study in November, 2011 by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) showed that the annual vehicle miles travelled by 16- to 30-year-old drivers (per person) from 2001 to 2009 has dropped by almost 24 percent. The reasons cited by the DOT are diverse: higher gas prices, greater unemployment, stricter driver’s licensing standards, higher costs for driver’s education, improvements in mass transit, more older people as a percentage of the population, and more young people living in large urban centres where owning a car is not a necessity.

But one factor, advances in internet and communication technology, is creating a wholesale change in young people’s approach to social interaction. More teenagers and twenty-somethings are choosing to visit friends and relatives online or by texting or calling them on their cell phones rather than getting in their car to go see them. Where possible, the same goes for their employers, business associates, schools and universities, stores, banks, libraries, and other services.

The 2011 DOT study reports that 78 percent of people aged 12–24 and 65 percent of people aged 25–34 have a social networking profile page on Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, or other social networking site, and 94 percent of people aged 18–34 use their phone for text messaging. “As many youth now spend a significant amount of time online, it raises the question to whether they communicate and socialize differently than generations before them, perhaps reducing their need to travel, or in some cases increasing it depending on the area they live in.”

This theory is borne out by the U-M study, which found that countries having a higher proportion of Internet users were associated with lower driver’s licence rates among young persons. “That’s consistent with the hypothesis that access to virtual contact through electronic means reduces the need for actual contact among young people,” said Sivak.

In addition, some researchers believe that the younger generation’s preoccupation with the Internet and mobile devices makes cars less desirable or useful and public transportation more relevant. “If you look at the 1960s, the car was the iconic symbol of freedom and independence; it was what every 16- and 17-year old coveted,” says Sheryl Connelly, Ford Motor Company’s Manager of Global Trends and Futuring. “Once you had your own set of wheels, you were free to go where and whenever you wanted. The car was the “gateway purchase” to adulthood, but I would argue that today the modern gateway purchase is the cell phone. It can enable freedom, autonomy, and independence.”

Stephen Beatty, Managing Director of Toyota Canada, agrees. “There was a time when your car was your social network; now of course you carry around your social network in your smart phone.”

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“If you think about technologies such as texting, Facebook, Skype, Pinterest, they’re all ways of hanging out with others even though you might be in three different cities — so we don’t need the wheels to transport us,” says Connelly. “Because those technologies transcend time and space, I can feel like I’m with my friends, so I don’t have to be with them physically.”

Concerned that the next generation of car buyers might be considering going car-less, automakers are rushing to integrate connectivity into their new cars. “It’s important for the connected generation that driving a car doesn’t mean you have to sever the connection,” says Toyota Canada’s Beatty. “In our latest vehicles we offer text-to-speech, full integration of e-mail and text in the car. In the United States, that includes connected services such as Facebook. Our navigation systems allow you to locate your friends using the cell phone network.”

Ford’s Connelly cites Ford’s SYNC technology that permits hands-free operation of Bluetooth-enabled devices with voice-activated phone calls, text messages and audio selection. As well, Ford’s MyFord Touch uses touchscreen technology with an interface similar to tablets and smart phones.

While many of these features first appeared in luxury cars, they are now being offered in even the most basic economy cars, which are more affordable for younger buyers.

But not all vehicle manufacturers are worried that young buyers can’t get excited about buying a new car for all of its other benefits.

John White, President of Volkswagen Group Canada, says his company’s cars have more appeal for young drivers, particularly cars like the Golf and GTI. “Volkswagens do attract a younger buyer, says VW Canada John White. “It’s more of an emotional purchase, a brand position we’ve established over decades.”

Toyota’s Scion brand was created specifically to attract younger buyers. “With Scion, we are trying to create aspiration by building the car around the lifestyle, or more importantly, building a lifestyle around your car. Scion’s are all about personal expression, customization. That’s why they’re strongly aligned with music, fashion, arts, and the whole customizing aspect of owning a car,” says Beatty.

Tim Reuss, President and CEO of Mercedes-Benz Canada, is also bullish on young buyers. “The new A-Class that we unveiled in Geneva recently, which we will be getting here in 2014, generated a buzz like you wouldn’t believe, especially with those younger customers.” Mercedes’ Smart ForTwo is also designed as a stylish city car for urban buyers and will soon include a new Electric Drive model.

Car sharing is another way that automakers are attracting young, urban drivers. Mercedes-Benz ‘Car To Go’ car-sharing program rents Smart ForTwos by the minute to its members in large cities, including Vancouver. Ford is also supplying cars to the Zip Cars car-sharing program at universities in Canada and the U.S.

Not everyone is worried that virtual visits will replace in-person visits. Mercedes-Benz Canada’s CEO, Tim Reuss, believes that texting and online conversations are no substitute for going out with friends. “No one likes to sit at home alone with a beer watching their friends on their computer drink their beers. That’s not happening.”

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