We’ve been hearing the mantra for years: Young people don’t care about cars anymore. They socialize with hand-held mobile devices, not vehicles, and their futures are so tarnished with bleak employment prospects and mountains of college debt they can’t ever picture themselves in a flashy sports car or sedan.
Instead, they will choose to live in megacities and use car-sharing services to get around, while they strive to grow rich with experiences rather than material goods.
There is empirical and anecdotal data in the U.S., Europe and Japan to support this theory. For one, teens in many major industrialized countries are waiting longer and longer to apply for driver’s licenses and in fewer numbers.
There now are fewer than two cars per household in the U.S., according to researcher Michael Sivak at the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute. Plus, vehicle ownership rates per person, per licensed driver and per household all peaked before the onset of the last recession, suggesting waning interest in vehicle ownership is not just the result of a limping U.S. economy.
Doomsayers are extrapolating this information to predict global vehicle sales and production soon will peak, followed by a rapid falloff where future generations will march like lemmings to mass transportation and tragically dull autonomous vehicles rather than aspire to cars designed with passion and created for driving pleasure.
I was starting to buy this dystopian view until I spent a day last month being crushed in the crowd at the Beijing Motor show, where the world’s largest vehicle market also appears to be the most car-crazy. During media day, where attendance is supposed to be strictly limited to automotive press, auto executives were fawned over like celebrities and the aisles are so choked with bodies holding cellphone cameras it sometimes was impossible to move.
“Is it like this during the public days?” I asked a veteran of the show trapped next to me in the mob. “No,” she said. “The public days are more crowded.”
The automotive world always will have fans and car snobs, but I’ve never seen anything that matches the volume or naked, naïve enthusiasm of the throngs in Beijing. It’s what I imagine auto shows must have been like in the U.S. during the 1950s when cars were inspired by jets and were metaphors for hope, ambition and success. The initials of Chinese automaker BYD actually stand for “Build Your Dreams.”
There will be no “peak car” in China. The economy is slowing, but annual sales growth for new vehicles is expected to remain in the high single digits. A burgeoning middle class in this country of almost 1.4 billion is hungry for personal mobility and status symbols. China’s love affair with cars, cross/utility vehicles and SUVs is just beginning.
According to WardsAuto’s global production forecast, despite the country’s decelerating economy, China’s auto industry will continue to be a powerhouse, building production volume equivalent to 35 new auto assembly plants by 2019, compared with an equivalent of 10 for India and just four for the U.S. during the same period.
Wherever else in the world enthusiasm for cars and trucks is waning, China will more than make up for it.