This is a stick-up. Give me your car keys or your cell phone. I don’t care which. What’s it gonna be, pal?
For a growing number of young people, the answer is the keys. A recent survey from the research company Gartner finds that 46 percent of 18- to 24-year-old Americans would rather have access to the internet than their own car. In auto-obsessed Germany, three-quarters of those in the same age group would rather live without their car than their smartphone.
“The iPhone is the Ford Mustang of today,” Thilo Koslowski, Gartner’s lead automotive analyst, recently told the New York Times.
What’s caused the change? For starters, driving has lost its cool with young Americans, who frankly have better things to do than sit behind the wheel of a tin can lodged in gridlock. And then there are gas prices that are expected to top $4.25 a gallon by April.
But there’s something else, too: If you’re not hung up on owning your own car, your phone can lead you to better, and far cheaper, ways to get around. And I don’t mean calling a friend to bum a ride.
Some of this stuff, you’ve already heard about: Google Transit, which is wired into many smartphones, makes it easy to plan a trip by bus or train. In some cities, GPS-enabled apps like Nextbus actually track transit in real time, so you know if your ride is running ahead of or behind schedule. Apps like Cabulous and Taxi Magic make calling a cab a no-brainer. Add to that a long list of local transportation apps that make it easy to get around without a car.
Of course, sometimes the bus isn’t going where you are. Enter smartphone-powered car-sharing companies like car2go, and programs like Getaround that allow you to locate privately owned cars that people will rent you by the hour. Lest you doubt the potential of this type of peer-to-peer car sharing, a French company called Buzzcar, co-founded by former Zipcar CEO Robin Chase (and includes nifty bug stickers for your car), is apparently doing quite well. Stateside, Zipcar just poured a bunch of cash into Wheelz, a startup peer-to-peer car sharing company that targets college campuses.
In Europe, a company called Carpooling.com allows auto owners to rent out just a seat or two, rather than the whole vehicle. It is quickly growing in popularity, thanks in part to skyrocketing gas prices. The company now claims 3.5 million registered users and boasts that it has saved 99 million gallons of gas, sparing the atmosphere 725,000 tons of CO2.
“Today when people think of mobility, they don’t think of a vehicle. They‘re looking for the best way to get from A to B,” says Carpooling CEO Markus Barnikel. He calls car sharing “the perfect complement” to public transportation, and true to form, the company’s website incorporates bus, train, and plane schedules so users can mix and match to find the best way of getting to their destinations.
What, you may be wondering, does the auto industry make of all this?
On one hand, you’ve got those in the business who argue that the fix is — wait for it — to make cars more like smartphones! This makes sense if you buy the argument that the reason young people aren’t enthused about driving is that it cuts into their texting time. But building a car that will automatically check you in on Foursquare when you arrive at the mall doesn’t even begin to address the real issues. Take, for example, the fact that it costs $8,000 just to keep a car around, according to the American Automobile Association.
The smarter companies are jumping feet-first into this brave new world where people don’t measure their worth by the amount of chrome they haul around. By 2026, a recent survey of global auto execs estimates that a quarter or more of urban inhabitants in some parts of the world will spurn personal cars in favor of “mobility services” such as car sharing. “The world is moving from car ownership to car usership,” the study says.
U.S. auto execs projected that just 1 to 5 percent of Americans would opt out of personal autos, but you can chalk that up to a seemingly unshakable lack of foresight in the American auto industry.
Audi, for one, sees the rise of car sharing as an opportunity. André Stoffels, Audi’s head of strategy, explains in the auto exec survey [PDF] that the company plans to give customers “easy, instant access to high quality vehicles as part of a premium brand experience, either through car sharing, car clubs, or ‘pay-as-you-drive’ offerings.”
It’s “sharing” for car snobs, and no doubt they will be able to take care of every bit of the business via their smartphones.
As for the rest of us? Bring on the higher gas prices! (I don’t care what the Republican presidential contenders say, we’re not going to drill our way out of this.) We’ll figure out how to get around while burning a little less of the stuff. There are lots of apps for that.