Opinion

Are Americans not going to own cars in the future? Don't believe it

Posted August 4

Ponder your daily driving habits. How many trips would you feel comfortable replacing with an Uber or Lyft ride? How many would you replace if the ride were in a driverless car?

If you’re like me, your week consists of a few quick trips to the grocery store for one thing or another, and maybe multiple Saturday trips to a hardware store because you keep buying the wrong part, or your home improvement project leads you from one need to another.

Maybe you make several trips per week for ecclesiastical reasons.

Want to stand in the front yard waiting for a ride-share car every time?

Maybe it’s a Western thing. Out here the distances still are wide and people still live mainly in suburban homes with yards. I’m more than a little skeptical about the predictions I’m reading.

Business Insider recently reported on a study that predicted only 20 percent of Americans will own cars by the early 2030s. Economic factors were seen as a huge incentive for this. Families, the report said, would save up to $5,600 yearly by using ride shares rather than buying and paying upkeep on a car. This, in turn, is expected to add about $1 trillion in disposable income into the economy.

Which might not be so impressive if your current job is tied to automotive sales.

The Washington Post quoted a historian who studies the social effects of cars as saying, “The automobile just isn’t that important to people’s lives anymore.”

And then, as if to prove to us old folks that the rising generation is weird, NPR recently cited figures showing the percentage of high school seniors who carry a driver’s license fell from 85.3 percent in 1996 to 71.5 percent in 2015.

What? Kids aren’t pining for their 16th birthdays any more so they can shrug off the shackles of a bike with baseball cards strapped to the spokes?

No one seems to understand what’s driving this trend (pun intended). Some say the recession reduced the number of available summer jobs, therefore young people have less incentive to drive. Others blame new state laws — graduated licenses that make it harder for teenagers to obtain a full-fledged license. Some experts blame smartphones. Kids would rather find friends through social media than by cruising the streets of their hometowns.

From my observations, too many of them are trying to do both at the same time.

It’s easy to see how all these trends and new technologies might lead to a conclusion that the future will consist of homes without garages, whose owners carefully time grocery runs to those hours when they are most likely to find a driverless Uber with large trunk space.

I just have my doubts.

People who predict the future stand a good chance of looking foolish for years to come. Entire websites are devoted to this. My personal favorite is the head of the Lewyt vacuum company who predicted, in 1955, that people in the future would have nuclear-powered vacuum cleaners. Unfortunately, he didn’t predict his company not surviving.

It’s true that markets change and consumer tastes evolve. But it’s also true that they don’t often move the way the experts predict. A few years ago, ebooks were supposed to destroy traditional books and bookstores. But while they succeeded in doing away with a lot of traditional chains, ebook sales fell nearly 20 percent in the first nine months of last year, while paperback and hardback book sales grew. Furniture makers have even begun selling bookcases again.

And have you seen the new vinyl records for sale now at big-box stores?

Yes, auto sales overall were down 5.7 percent in July compared with the year before. And yes, people in large urban areas are using ride-share companies for quick trips to lunch or cross-town meetings.

But the leap from that to a near future where only 20 percent of Americans own cars is even farther than the leap to a totally autonomous car, which scientists I’ve interviewed say remains far off.

Only one thing is certain, either all those experts will look foolish years from now, or I will.

Jay Evensen is the senior editorial columnist at the Deseret News. Email him at even@deseretnews.com. For more content, visit his website, jayevensen.com.

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