Pi Attitude Zone: Material Status

The Future Of Cars? Not So Electric [3]

This is the third and last of these Pi blogposts about Futuristic Car Hype.  Pi finally has to pose the big question:  is there a car in your future at all?

At first glance, the question seems silly.  Life without cars is unimaginable, isn’t it?  There are almost one billion already being driven on the world’s roads.  They account for over two-thirds of all journeys.

Cars have become a seemingly indispensable part of the Western way of life.  Now, as emerging markets advance economically, their newly affluent consumers line up to buy their first car.  This is not just a status thing, it’s about mobility itself.  Yet if global car ownership were to match US levels, there would be four times as many cars in the world.  Given the problems they already cause (even China, its cities engulfed in noxious smog, has imposed curbs on car emissions), that would probably not be a good thing for our planet.

Indeed, in the rich world car use is probably hitting its all-time peak.  Some of the trends have been turning downwards.  Post-financial-crash recession and economic uncertainty have resulted in reduced miles driven per person.  Indeed, there was a negative trend even before 2007, fuelled (okay, sorry, bad pun...) by the rising price of gasoline.  There is a generational factor in Western markets, too.  Many baby-boomers were the first in their families to own cars, and they pushed auto penetration growth overall;  but succeeding generations are starting to replace their elders, rather than adding new vehicle-owners to the auto-pool.  Which means that saturation car ownership levels are already on the horizon. 

The change is not only demographic, but attitudinal as well.  Younger people in the developed world seem to be falling out of love with the internal combustion engine.  They are getting driving licenses later in their lives if they use cars at all.  Many are opting instead for other ways of staying mobile, including bicycles and public transport.  Not to mention *gasp* walking.

Mobility itself is getting down-valued in some countries, importantly by the growth of internet use.  Not going anywhere has never been so much fun.  Social media means that the need to socialize is shifting online, reducing the need to go out or visit someone else’s place.  For some, the daily commute has been replaced by the “daily compute”, as working from home takes hold.  (For what it’s worth, the writer is down to only two or three car-rides in a typical week.  He spends his time in his upstairs ‘home office’, typing out stuff like this).

Change will be gradual.  An incipient downturn in car use in the West will be compensated by increased demand in emerging markets.  So global car manufacturers don’t have to worry too much just yet.

But a new psychographic divide could soon separate the established rich world from newly affluent consumers elsewhere.  From Brazil to Indonesia, fun and freedom will be enhanced by owning a car.  In America, where the whole car thing started, fun and freedom may be redefined in terms of not owning one.

Pi says:  sometimes progress means things going backwards...

Zone: Material Status Country: Multiple Geographies Product – Consumer Products