February 3, 2015

The Clouded Issue: Will technology usher in the End of Motordom?

From CityLab:

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Urbanization and Smartphones Are Killing Car Culture

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The Western world’s century-old love affair with the automobile is coming to an end. …  the proliferation of smartphones—with apps that let city residents access real-time information on public transport and capabilities that have given rise to private taxi services like Uber—add to the sense among city dwellers that owning a car is an unnecessary expense. …

This chart shows that interest in car ownership has increased from recession-era lows. But only one age bracket, consumers 55-64, shows more interest now than in 2007—and note the flattening out of the trend line for consumers in the 25-34 age bracket.

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Vehicle

Propensity to buy a vehicle by age in the United States (Schroders)

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Smartphones cut car use in other ways, too. By allowing people to easily stay in constant contact, smartphones have reduced the number of trips people take. Danah Boyd, a researcher at Microsoft, noted this phenomenon in her 2014 book, It’s Complicated, which looked at the use of communications tools among teenagers. “What the drive-in was to teens in the 1950s and the mall in the 1980s, Facebook, texting, Twitter, instant messaging, and other social media are to teens now,” she writes [pdf, p.20]. …

What does all this mean for car companies? “Our base case is that there will be a structural stagnation in the developed world auto industry, with no further gains in density and all future vehicle sales driven by replacement demand,” writes Schroders’ Davidson.

Nigel Griffiths, chief automotive economist with the research firm IHS, is somewhat more sanguine: “We do believe there is a structural change occurring. The question is how significant that is and how  pervasive that will be in the long term,” he says, adding, “We are being very cautious in our forward-looking models.”

One reason is for that is the difficulty in reading structural changes amid a lot of cyclical noise. Gas prices are falling. Exchange rates are volatile. It’s not clear where car ownership levels will settle out, post-recession. All of that has “really clouded the issue,” says Griffiths.

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  1. In discovered this in 1999 when I visited a Swiss friend in Paris. I arrived after dark and called her from the phone at the train station to arrange to meet her at some function. She told me which stop to get off at. I then asked where to go from there. “Call me on your mobile,” she said. I replied, “I haven’t got one.” Her response was shock: “You can’t do things in Paris without a mobile or a car!”

    I have this feeling that the mobile phone is the new car in another way also. Over the course of the 20th century we redesigned our cities for cars. They went from luxury items to requirements for participation in society: not only socially, but architecturally. Even where the social reasons for car dependence fade the architecture enforces its logic of exclusion. We ended up with places like Ferguson.

    I am beginning to get the sense we are making the same mistake with the phone. We are starting to design our cities not for people, but for people with phones. Not having a phone doesn’t just mean you can’t keep in touch with friends: it excludes you from being able to do tasks like lining up for basic services (e.g. at SFU), catching a bus, paying for parking. I do not think that this is wise.

    1. Coincidentally, a friend just emailed me about his morning of misery. Flying from Hong Kong to Japan (where he is a studying), he missed his flight, costing him 9.5 hours and $800. Why? His cell phone, Google Now and Expedia all failed to update the time zone and reported the wrong time.

      He writes, “the airport seems to have removed almost all the clocks in the building because OF COURSE everyone has a smartphone! It turns out the network update doesn’t work over airport WiFi. . . . And my insurance company covered nothing because it was my fault that I missed the plane.”

  2. The tragedy of the smart phone is it disconnects us from those around us. Rather than saying hello to a stranger, or engaging someone over something you may not appreciate, we now bury ourselves in screens littered with ads and social media. Gone are the days of the phone booth, which makes it very hard to call people if you don’t have a phone when travelling somewhere. I own a smartphone, but rather than find it an improvement in my life, I find it is increasingly resembling an automobile: costly, annoying, but hard to go without.

  3. Cars, or rather personally owned (or perhaps shared) personal transportation vehicles, be they electric, hybrid, gasoline, human or helium propelled will be with us for a few decades, likely centuries. Ditto with even cheaper communication devices. (wo)man is a social animal and likes to get around and connect. In that sphere both a personal get-around vehicle and a personal connect apparatus is useful.

    People do what makes sense to them at the time. Perhaps in a few decades every human gets an electronic device implanted into his ear so he can talk to anyone and be found immediately. Who knows. Embrace technology, maximize the positive aspects of it, and minimize the negative aspects. A few thousand years ago people roamed around from cave to frigid cave wondering what to eat tomorrow. That seems somehow less attractive.

    Mobil phones liberate. Entire nations, mainly in Asia, Africa or S-America skipping generations of technologies and go to smartphones immediately, including payment systems to grow their economies. One can of course still use maps and go hiking off the grid at increased risk of getting lost and not be found. Modern life is wonderful. Soooooo many options available we didn’t even dream of 20 years ago !

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