Teen using iPhone
Credit: JESHOOTS via Pixabay https://pixabay.com/en/iphone-template-mockup-mock-up-500291/

As recent as two decades ago, freedom for teenagers entailed getting a driver's license and either owning or having access to a car to cruise around in and/or drive themselves back and forth to school and work. However, trends are showing times have changed and a smartphone has become the new rite of passage to achieving personal freedom.

According to Gartner research a few years back, at that time 46 percent of 18-to-24 year-old drivers said they would give up their cars before giving up access to the Internet.  At the time of that study, text messaging had emerged to become a primary influence in the lives of teens, and one of their favorite activities. Fast-forward to today and there’s Snapchat, Skype and all other sorts of ways teens communicate using apps or social media.

The Gartner research had been going on for a decade and had tracked the different prototypes of teens over time, and the conclusion was technology is where it's at. Seemingly, teens today are more interested in texting - not driving.

What's the Relationship to Cars?

What does technology progress have to do with cars? Lots. A study, conducted by University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute found 30 years ago about half of all 16 year olds in the United States had a driver’s license. In 2010, just 28 percent had obtained one.

It seems driving is not the major milestone it once was. (All you have to do is look back to old movies where teens are featured cruising or driving to places as a major part of the plot lines. In newer movies, this is not likely to be highlighted nearly as much). You figure teens today don’t need to drive to meet their friends at the mall or the movies, they can just message with one another. And long gone are the days of going to the local record store to peruse the latest music because teens can just download it. Actually, you’d probably have a tough time finding a local music store these days anyway.

Teen driver
Credit: State Farm via Flickr/CC by 2.0 https://www.flickr.com/photos/statefarm/7838242086

In generations past, teens actively counted down the days until they were old enough to get behind the wheel. Today, not so much.

In 2011, the New York Times reported automakers should be concerned about the iPhone, presumably more so than the competition coming from other auto companies.

''Mobile devices, gadgets and the Internet are becoming must-have lifestyle products that convey status," said Thilo Koslowski, lead automotive analyst for Gartner, in an interview with the New York Times.  "In that sense these devices offer a degree of freedom and social reach that previously only the automobile offered. The iPhone is the Ford Mustang of today," Koslowski added. [2]

(According to a 2015 CBS report, this hasn't changed. At that time iPhone was still the smartphone of choice with about 67 percent of teens owning one). [6]

In 2013 the Los Angeles Times published a piece, “Who needs a car? Smartphones are driving teens' social lives”.

Driving once allowed teens "to go where you want, do what you want, see who you want and, in some sense, be who you want," 23-year-old Lindsey Kirchoff told the Los Angeles Times. Kirchoff works for the marketing software company HubSpot and is a millennial trend marketing consultant. "The Internet has made the freedom that comes with a license anticlimactic." [5]

While “cruising” and roller skating were once the dominating weekend activity for teens, today they are more likely to be found electronically chatting with their friends, playing video games or engaging in some other technology-centric activity in their free time. In November 2015 CNN reported on a study that suggested teens spend about nine hours a day on media (this excluded using technology for schoolwork). [3]

A survey conducted by Zipcar, an hourly car-rental company, found at that time found about 65 percent of millennials aged 18 – 34 would prefer to go without a car and not their smartphones when giving the choice.

cars in rainstorm
Credit: Leigh Goessl

For teens, it seems the popularity of smartphones has washed over dreams of wanting to have a car

The trend continues. In a 2015 Chicago Tribune piece, the author of the article cited examples in his personal life about teens who didn’t care about driving, stating teens today “prefer to navigate their way through the Digital Age via the information highway more than any interstate highway.” [7]

This resonated with me because I have seen very similar behaviors in the region where I live. Many high schoolers are not even trying to get their permits and/or licenses until they’ve reached senior year or beyond. That surprised me.

What Does the Auto Industry Think?

Do teens really not care about cars like they did once upon a time? At least one automaker, back in 2011, wasn't dismissing the notion and began thinking towards the future.

''The car used to be the signal of adulthood, of freedom," Sheryl Connelly, Ford Motor Co.'s manager of global consumer trends and futuring, said, according to the NYT News Service piece. "It was the signal into being a grown-up. Now, the signal into adulthood for teenagers is the smartphone." [2]

Carmakers are considering looking to design their cars as an "experience" said K. Venkatesh Prasad, senior technical leader of open innovation at Ford. Ideas considered were automatic "check-ins" when a teen gets to a location, access to Internet to take pictures, videos and voice-activated text.

You figure that was in 2011. Today, Bluetooth, Pandora and other smartphone-ready features have become pretty standard in new cars.

As future generations become less interested in driving, it's interesting to imagine what will the car of the future look like? Then again, maybe they won't even need a car period. After all, many college opportunities are already accessible online and many jobs are telecommuting ones.

Then again, with autonomous cars on the horizon, it may make both worlds co-exist nicely, especially if computers do the work and driving may not need much human interaction at all.