Driving goes digital to rev up youth
Connectivity is the new horsepower. Car manufacturers are accelerating their response to the digital generation’s needs, writes JACK EWING
THE DIGITAL generation is apathetic about cars. And that’s a problem for car firms. Among car companies, showcasing their latest products at the Paris Motor Show this month, there is a growing recognition that young people may simply not care about cars as much as their elders.
Smartphones now rival automobiles as the default symbol of adulthood and the portals to the world beyond home and school. Electronic technology competes ever more for the younger generation’s disposable income. As a result, in Paris car firms seemed to spend more time talking about how well their cars interact with an iPhone than they did about engine performance. Connectivity is the new horsepower.
“Before, we talked about steering, ride and all those elements,” said Gunnar Herrmann, vice-president for quality at Ford of Europe. “You could argue those are dropping down in importance. Connectivity is getting more important.”
That means not only docks for smartphones but also technology such as voice recognition to allow devices to be used while driving, or internet radios that can stay tuned to the hometown station even when hundreds of miles away.
In essence, for the generation of mobile apps, carmakers are offering app-mobiles. “I think it’s true that the generation coming up now, who will be the car buyers for the next 20 years, are fairly unique,” said Douglas Speck, senior vice-president for marketing and sales at Volvo. “They grew up in a world where computers and cellphones and connectivity all came together at the same time.”
Few car company executives are ready to concede that young people will not want actual cars. “They like iPhones and iPods more than they like cars – you hear that,” said Ralf Speth, chief executive of Jaguar Land Rover, which is undergoing a renaissance thanks to investment from its new owner, Tata Motors of India. But, he says, “everyone still needs to get from A to B”.
There is a consensus, though, that younger buyers will want to get from A to B in a different kind of car. It must be more stylish. Performance is still important, but it must come wrapped in technology that appears more environmentally responsible.
“They like technology. They like innovation. They like design,” said Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, the chairman of Ferrari, who noted that many of the company’s customers were young tech entrepreneurs.
More immediately, manufacturers are trying to find ways to balance the craving for constant connectivity with the need for drivers to keep their eyes on the road. Voice-recognition technology is already available in cars by Volvo and others as a way to operate some of the onboard electronics, and will become more sophisticated. BMW and others have heads-up displays that project information on the windshield in the driver’s line of sight. These technologies are likely to become less expensive and more common.
While executives express confidence they will find products to appeal to the “millennials”, as they are known in marketing speak, the car companies also betray a level of anxiety.
At a press event in a Left Bank hall usually used for fashion shows, Volkswagen seemed almost obsessively at pains to show how its model line was tailored to the young.
There was nary a driver above 30 in the short promotional films that VW showed between presentations by executives of its new models. There was a heavy emphasis on how the company was working to reduce fuel consumption and emissions. “Sustainability is the key issue of our time,” the narrator intoned.
Environmental impact, in fact, has become a main factor for buyers younger than 30, though many executives are sceptical about whether young drivers are any less interested in performance than their elders.
The car companies contend that younger people still want to drive fast – but not feel guilty about it. – (New York Times)