teen with smartphone

Getting a smartphone has been a rite of passage for many teens.

There are a lot of problems the auto industry has to worry about.  They have to worry about pensions and health care costs for their employees.  They also have to worry about recalls and the rising cost of gas.  But there is something else that automakers should be concerned about.


It’s the iPhone.

Teenagers love smartphones, and getting one has become a rite of passage. A driver’s license? Like, whatever.

It seems unlikely, but at least one auto company is paying attention.

“The car used to be the signal of adulthood, of freedom,” Sheryl Connelly, the Ford Motor Company’s manager of global consumer trends and futuring, said in a recent phone interview. (The title sounds strange, but many big companies now have executives focused on discerning the future.) “It was the signal into being a grown-up. Now, the signal into adulthood for teenagers is the smartphone.”

“Mobile devices, gadgets and the Internet are becoming must-have lifestyle products that convey status,” said Thilo Koslowski, lead automotive analyst for Gartner. “In that sense these devices offer a degree of freedom and social reach that previously only the automobile offered.”

There are some signs that smartphones, along with social networks and text messaging, have become the expression of liberation from parents that getting a driver’s license and hitting the open road once was.

In a survey to be published later this year, Gartner found that 46 percent of people 18 to 24 would choose access to the Internet over access to their own car. Only 15 percent of the baby boom generation would say that, the survey found. “The iPhone is the Ford Mustang of today,” Mr. Koslowski said.

The teenager’s waning enthusiasm for driving predates smartphones. Statistics released by the Transportation Department note that in 1978, 50 percent of 16-year-olds in the United States obtained their first driver’s license. In 2008, only 30 percent did.

Those who get a license now drive less, too. The Transportation Department says 21-to-30-year-olds now drive 8 percent fewer miles than they did in 1995.

Ms. Connelly of Ford has an interesting explanation for the behavioral shift. Driving a car limits the valuable time teenagers could use to text-message with their friends or update their social networks, she said. Although public transportation or waiting for a ride from the parents is slower, it gives a teenager more time to engage with friends on a mobile phone.

So what’s a car company to do? Hand out free iPhones and a billion free text messages with the purchase of a new car? Although that would definitely have teenagers lining up for the next Ford Fiesta, it wouldn’t necessarily help the financial burdens of an ailing auto industry.

“We are not looking at this to ask how we can get teens to buy a car versus an iPhone,” said K. Venkatesh Prasad, senior technical leader of open innovation at Ford. “Instead, the car has to become more than just a car. It has to become an experience.”

In other words, to entice teenagers, Ford and other automakers need to make their cars more like smartphones.

Cars could even become smarter than smartphones. They could automatically check teenagers into Foursquare when they arrive at the mall. The car could read text messages aloud for the driver. It could have built-in cameras to take pictures and videos of passengers and upload them to Facebook and YouTube, also automatically tagging who is who in the images. There could be shared music networks based on the type of similar songs teenagers have on their smartphones.

And maybe one day, the car could even drive itself so teenagers could text away without worrying about driving.

Photo credit: Mobile Media

Via New York Times