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Friday, January 8, 2010

The Love Affair with the Automobile May Be on Its Way Out


I just read a short report from the Earth Policy Institute which revealed  that after a century of growth, the U.S. car fleet peaked in 2009 and started to decline.  The 14 million cars that were scrapped exceeded the 10 million new cars sold.  The report gave many reasons for the downturn including higher gas prices, the poor economy, longer commutes, and growing urbanization.  But another reason that intrigued me is that young people just don't care about cars like their parents and grandparents did.  The car is no longer the portal to socialization - it is now better accomplished on social networks and cellphones.  New teenage drivers' licenses are in decline.  The number of teenage licenses peaked in 1978 at 12 million and is now under ten million.

I remember in my own teenage years that my friends and I would drive endlessly up and down the main street of our small town looking to see who else was driving up and down the main street.  This endless do-loop of a drive was punctuated by occasional stops at the drive-in restaurant for a soda and some french fries.  The whole point was to see and be seen in something that looked a great deal like the movie, American Graffiti.  Of course, every family had a telephone but that usually involved talking in a place where any conversation could all too easily be overheard by parents or siblings.  The web, text messages, and cell phones allow so much more privacy from prying ears.  These newer technologies are perfectly adapted to teenagers who are dealing with the angst of adolescence (which comes with a certain built-in level of paranoia).

There has always been a push to develop new communications technologies.  We are a social species and we feel compelled to share our thoughts and ideas.  We need to connect with other people to have the sense of community. It was revolutionary when Gutenberg made it possible to widely share ideas in book form.  The telegraph and then the telephone changed long-distance communications forever.  Radio, television, motion pictures, and now cellphones and the web have all been driven by our insatiable desire to connect in richer and more immediate ways.

One of the byproducts of new communication channels is a reordering of older technologies, in this case, the automobile.  Who would have guessed that a cause for fewer cars on the road would be changing communications patterns in young people?  I always figured that the next generation would help solve the energy crisis but I didn't guess that it would come about because their new ways to connect mean they don't need cars to do so.  This is not good news for automakers anywhere.  But changing patterns are never good news for the old ways.  Still, I put my faith in our kids.  They will be better connected, and greener, than their parents.

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