Why You Can’t Sell Me a Car

Air Dancer
Air Dancer: Photograph by chris hake; background: Jack Flash/Getty Images

When I was a kid, my father’s Kettering, Ohio, auto shop was often my daycare center. Grease-stained mechanics wielding hefty tools the size of my arm knelt down and explained their work. Some showed me how to perform an oil change and diagnose a leaky head gasket, others how to align a timing belt and replace a busted windshield. Years later, as a Boy Scout, I earned my Automotive Maintenance merit badge with ease.

I should be someone passionate about cars and their storied place in this country’s culture. A wrencher who dreams of red Mustangs and racing stripes. The guy who strolls onto a lot and names a make, model, and price before a salesman can utter a single slippery word. I can fake any of these things, but I won’t: Automobile manufacturers do not make cars I’d buy. Not one. And I’m not alone.

Millennials are the largest demographic alive today—and the auto industry’s biggest headache.My generation—the millennials—numbers some 90 million teens and 20- and early-30-somethings. This makes us the largest demographic cohort alive today—and the auto industry’s biggest headache. We’re supposed to be driving more as we age, yet young people drove 23 percent fewer miles in 2009 than in 2001. Only two thirds of 16- to 24-year-olds in 2011 even possessed a driver’s license (the lowest rate since 1963). Meanwhile, nearly a third of us prefer to live in cities, where we can abandon cars for trains, buses, cabs, bikes, and our own legs.

Don’t get me wrong; I savor the freedom of cars and happily borrow the one my wife bought before we married. Cars are versatile enough to drive to the grocery store one day and across a continent the next. You can toss camping gear in the trunk, blast your favorite music, roll down the windows, and put a dog in the backseat (and roll down its window too). No other mode of transportation permits the same degree of speed, comfort, and flexibility.

Yet I recoil from the idea of buying one. Cars equal liability. Accidents are practically inevitable, no matter how well you drive. They cost more and more to own and maintain, and (electric or not) they defile the environment. And good luck parking one anywhere without it getting ticketed or towed.

So what would it take you, the automakers, to sell me, a punk kid of the “expectant” generation, a car?

One, lose the driver’s seat. Or at least make it optional. Cars should drive themselves. I’d rather sit in the back with some toddlers watching Finding Nemo for the 100th time or take a nap with the dog. You don’t want me driving anyway. About 34,000 people in the United States died in car crashes last year. Some of these incidents are inarguably related to the 39 percent of teens who text while driving, even when they know that it’s not only against the law, but also remarkably dangerous.

Instead, put robots in charge. Machines can’t be distracted by text messages, music, or spilled soda. Plus, they’re faster than human brains at computing the mundane information required to safely operate a vehicle. We’ve already seen the rollout of self-parking, lane-keeping, automatic-braking, and cyclist-collision-avoidance systems—it’s time to give autonomy a try. If a small team of researchers at Oxford University thinks it can produce such a system costing $150, you’re not trying hard enough. (By the way, please make sure your cars park themselves only in legal spots.)

Two, don’t make me wreck the planet. I know that the metal, plastic, fuel, and other materials that make up a car originate from somewhere, typically with significant long-term costs to the environment. Even electric vehicles aren’t there yet; the mining and toxicity of elements in their batteries are dubious at best. You can improve. Push your research teams harder to develop more ecologically and morally responsible alternatives. Look to advanced materials to invent cells that charge quickly like capacitors yet dissipate energy in a controlled manner so that they don’t heat up or explode. If that seems crazy in the short term, follow Tesla’s lead and build a dedicated, closed-loop battery recycling program.

Three, once the battery problems are solved for good—and I have no doubt that they will be—recharging an electric vehicle needs to be just as speedy and safe as pumping gas. The real challenge, then, is building a robust power grid that can withstand the escalating and enormous demand placed upon it. You carmakers have unbelievable pull with lawmakers; after all, you got them to build and maintain a national highway system for you. The ability to feed power to thousands of rapid charging stations should be well within your spheres of influence.

Four, lobby the government to feed that grid with as much electricity from renewable and environmentally friendly sources as possible: solar, wind, hydroelectric, and more. You can’t sell me an electric car that runs on energy wrought primarily from fossil fuels and fusty nuclear technologies. I’m smarter than that.

Finally, make cars affordable. While older drivers registered more new vehicles between 2007 and 2011, our generation registered 30 percent fewer. That’s probably because our generation continues working harder and harder for the man for little, if any, increase in pay. We can’t even afford gasoline. The fuel cost about a buck a gallon when I started driving; these days, it can be priced four times that. Cheap, gasoline-free cars should be possible. Nissan—which recently let me test-drive its all-electric 2013 LEAF in New York City—shaved thousands of dollars off the car’s price tag compared with last year’s model. That’s a good start, but it’s not enough. We have seen our parents’ comfortable retirements evaporate, Wall Street fail, and Detroit go bankrupt. So we’ll cling to our clunkers or not drive at all until you’re willing to work with our extremely slim budgets.

So there, automakers. You don’t need to hire “generational experts” or spend millions on advertisements of cars that we don’t want. Just listen to us, your customers. We’ll be with you for a long time. That is, as long as you create affordable, environmentally redeeming vehicles that can safely drive us—and our consciences—off the lot.

About the author: Dave Mosher is the projects editor at Popular Science. His last car was a 1991 Isuzu Rodeo. This article originally appeared in the October 2013 issue of Popular Science.


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