Will the Younger Generations End Cars as We Know It?

Mercedes F015
Is the Mercedes-Benz F015 concept a glimpse of what’s to come?

Ford recently released the results of a study they commissioned in which a group of Millennials and Gen-Z’ers were asked what they were most afraid of. The results are fascinating, if a bit alarming.

The overwhelming winner in the fear competition was other drivers, beating out such stalwarts as death, public speaking and spiders. Think about it – more of them were afraid of what the guy in the car next to them would do than ceasing to exist on this planet.

The results of this study should alarm anyone who loves cars, especially the thrill of driving them. The Millennial generation – for this study, those between the ages of 23 and 34, but dates vary among sources – is the largest generation since the Baby Boomers, and Generation Z – those between the ages of 16 and 22 in the study – is already large and still growing. Only the earliest of the Gen Z population are now old enough to drive, but as more of them come of age, the number of people who are more afraid of other drivers than the Grim Reaper will continue to grow.

The study, conducted by independent research firm Penn Schoen Berland, also concluded that 50 percent of those surveyed weren’t afraid of self-driving cars, and 52 percent would be as comfortable or more comfortable with a self-driving car than a car they drove themselves.

That last point bears repeating – they are as or more comfortable with a car driving itself than if they were driving it.

Along those same lines, they are also more willing to have a car that can find a parking spot for them and then park for them once they get there, and they like cars to tell them what’s in their blind spots.

So what does this mean for the car enthusiast? New technologies like blind spot detection, collision avoidance, automatic cruise control and parking assist are already become more commonplace among modern vehicles. Companies like Google and Apple are already looking into autonomous cars and Tesla CEO Elon Musk thinks that autonomous cars will be ready for consumers within five years.

Google Self Driving Car prototype
This composite image shows the current Google self-driving car prototype on the left, with a design concept for a future version on the right.

As the younger generations grow and the older generations decline, companies will be putting more of these systems in cars to appeal to their customers. The younger generations will eventually take over influential positions in government, and what they used to vote for with their wallets, they will be able to vote for with actual votes, which may lead to these systems being mandated by law instead of being optional.

It’s hard to argue against cars that are safer for both the occupants and those not in the vehicle, but when those cars take away the very thing that makes cars so great in the first place – the thrill of driving – the notion could send a chill down the spine of any car enthusiast.

Twenty years from now, will there still be cars like there are today? Will it still be possible to drive a car for the sheer pleasure of it? Cars are changing, no doubt – hybrid powerplants and electric motors are becoming more common – but companies like Ferrari, Porsche and BMW, among others, have shown that hybrids don’t have to be boring and can still be entertaining to drive. While this could assuage the fears of car enthusiasts, what happens when the automakers start tailoring their business models to Millennials and Gen-Zs, who will become the groups with the most buying power?

The market just might be filled with cars like the Mercedes-Benz F015 concept that pampers occupants inside its gleaming chrome bean-shaped exterior as the car takes care of all that nasty business of driving. Or perhaps the roads will be filled with thousands of Google’s smiling little pods, shuffling passengers to and from their destinations without the need for frivolities like pedals or a steering wheel.

Hopefully, car enthusiasts can keep driving an integral part of the automotive experience and companies, even small ones, will still cater to those who prefer to do the driving themselves. It may be a lot to ask for if Ford’s fear study is any indication.

Watch as IndyCar driver Justin Wilson takes one of those fun-to-drive hybrids, the 2015 BMW i8, around the track in this TFLcar video: