Car Trouble: Why the World Is at the Dawn of the 'Peak Car' Era
In the globe's growing megacities, pollution and gridlock are putting a damper on driving. In India, some commuters are leaving their cars at home to avoid traffic snarls and long prowls for parking. More young Americans are forgoing the dream of auto ownership for public transport, bikes and vehicle-sharing. Cars are lasting longer than ever.
All of that may herald a new era for an auto industry weaned on a century of global growth. The world will reach "Peak Car" -- a point at which annual global sales growth will top out -- in the next decade, several auto-industry analysts predict. Researcher IHS Automotive, for one, sees annual sales cresting at 100 million within that time.
Peak Car is at odds with the ambitious expansion plans of global automakers, which IHS says are gearing up to produce more than 120 million vehicles by 2016 -- almost 50 percent more than last year's worldwide sales mark of 82 million. The dynamic also threatens the business plans of parts producers, suppliers of raw material and oil companies.
Driving this upheaval is a rapidly emerging reality: The vehicle that ushered in an unparalleled era of personal mobility in the last century is, in many cases, no longer the most convenient conveyance.
Megatrends in Booming China
No one is predicting that car sales will suddenly fall off or that today's car companies are now dinosaurs. What the experts do see is a reckoning for car companies.
"The key question is: Do you sell cars or do you sell mobility?" said Tim Ryan, New York-based vice chairman of markets and strategy for consultant PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP. "If you ignore these megatrends, you run the risk of becoming irrelevant."
There's a counterargument to predictions that sales could peak: Chinese consumers continue to have a voracious appetite for automobiles, as more of the country's 1.3 billion people climb the economic ladder. China helped drive global auto sales up 46 percent since 2000, and in 2009 the country surpassed the U.S. as the world's largest auto market. Chinese consumers bought 22 million vehicles last year, a mark that automakers and analysts forecast will hit 30 million by 2020.
At the same time, China is struggling with urban gridlock and growing pollution, which in turn spurred the country's leaders to put restrictions on car licensing to slow auto sales.
Many automakers are preparing for changing markets with cars that can be shared, or speak to each other in a bid to keep traffic from jamming. General Motors' (GM) EN-V autonomous two-seater, a vehicle engineered with Segway Inc. that can detect and avoid obstacles, is being tested in Tianjin, China.
"We have looked at the urbanization trend very closely," said Jim Cain, a spokesman for GM. "It's driven experiments like our EN-V program in China and our involvement in services like car sharing."
Global Gridlock, Fewer Drivers' Licenses
The case for growing gridlock has been presented by PricewaterhouseCoopers, among others. Today, half the world lives in urban areas. In 25 years, there will be 9 billion people living in urban areas -- more than the population of the Earth today.
"People won't stand for spending 25 percent of their life commuting," Ryan said. "The way they will get around will be different."
The desire for mobility isn't decreasing any more than the demand for information is abating just because fewer people read newspapers today. As with news, what's changing is the delivery system.
In the U.S., 44 percent of people would prefer to live in a city with automated "driverless" cars that would reduce congestion, according to a new survey from Intel (INTC). Already in the U.S., where automotive ownership has long seemed a birthright, almost one in 10 households don't have a car, up 5.7 percent over the last five years.
More young people also aren't pursuing driver's licenses, once a rite of passage. In 2010, 69.5 percent of 19-year-olds in the U.S. had a driver's license, down from 87.3 percent in 1983, said Michael Sivak, director of sustainable worldwide transportation at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute in Ann Arbor.
Better-built cars are damping demand for new ones: The average age of autos on the road today has reached a record 11.4 years, according to researcher R.L. Polk.
The shift also is being fueled by changing attitudes on oil consumption for environmental, political and economic reasons. Alternatives to auto ownership are emerging, such as ride-sharing company Zipcar and ride-booking service Uber Technologies, that appeal to a new generation of drivers disinterested in carmakers' high-cost products.
Life in Dallas, After a Totaled Honda
In Germany, which remains Europe's top auto market more than two decades after sales peaked there, Daimler and BMW have tried to woo non-owners with programs that let people rent cars by the minute. This month, Daimler started letting some users of its Car2Go service pick up a Mercedes-Benz B-Class hatchback in Berlin and drop it off in Hamburg, or the reverse.
In the U.S., Art Ortiz joined the ranks of carless commuters more than a year ago, when he totaled his 2003 Honda Element.
The 38-year-old Dallas dog trainer and dog walker mostly uses a commuter bicycle and a transit pass. When he needs a car, about four times a week, he gets a ride with his girlfriend or uses a pay service like the one from Lyft, a smartphone application that summons private cars for hire.
"I didn't really feel the need to have a car," said Ortiz, who got his first car when he was 16. "A car was just a waste of money."
Ultimately, urban dwellers will order a ride to work on their phones, get picked up by a driverless car and whisk through traffic controlled by satellites and sensors that move them safely and quickly, said Thilo Koslowski, auto analyst for researcher Gartner Inc. of Stamford, Conn. U.S. regulators said this month they've begun working on rules to let vehicles communicate via wireless chips on the road.
The world's automakers and suppliers therefore have to transform into transportation-service providers, Ryan said. Preparing for driverless cars and vehicles that talk to each other makes up a significant portion of the $100 billion the global auto industry spends on research and development, according to a study last month by the Center for Automotive Research. Automakers wouldn't reveal how much they're spending on autonomous autos.
Concept Vehicles and Unsold Cars
At the Tokyo auto show last year, Toyota Motor (TM) unveiled concepts for three-wheeled vehicles that communicate with each other in dense urban settings. GM and Ford (F) are part of a U.S. program testing the ability of 3,000 vehicles to communicate among themselves and with objects such as traffic lights and roadside sensors.
Ford Executive Chairman Bill Ford, great-grandson of founder Henry Ford, in 2009 formed Fontinalis Partners to invest in mobility technology such as bike-sharing service Zagster and ParkMe parking-assistance software.
"We're going to have these megacities, and they are going to have lots of infrastructure issues, not just transportation, but clean water and food distribution," Ford said in a July 2011 interview, outlining issues the company is continuing to examine. "If you look at every auto company's business plan and extrapolate it out over the next 10 years, it certainly didn't take me long to start asking the question: Where will all those cars and trucks go?"
One answer: For every vehicle that is used in a car-sharing fleet, automakers will lose 32 vehicle sales, according to a study this month by AlixPartners.
The Southfield, Mich., consulting firm, which advised GM on its bankruptcy, estimates that car-sharing has cost makers 500,000 vehicle purchases since 2006. Self-driving "autonomous" cars will be the "killer app" that enables car-sharing companies to blossom, AlixPartners said. By 2020, it said, 4 million Americans will car-share, up from 1 million now.
That coming boom in autonomous cars has created an opening for technology companies that view mobility differently than automakers do. Google (GOOG) has logged hundreds of thousands of miles road-testing its own driverless cars, according to the study by CAR.
"The auto manufacturers may need to have a different generation of senior executives and CEOs because today's generation gets more excited about the sheet metal of a production car versus the bits and bytes," Gartner's Koslowski said. "If the industry doesn't work fast enough, the Googles and Apples of the world will fill the void."
In Mumbai, Faster Alternatives Than 3 MPH
The need for a new form of mobility is evident in Mumbai, India, where 12 million people are squeezed into about 230 square miles. Just 14 percent of trips are by personal car while more than half the commuters cram into 2,900 passenger trains that carry 7.6 million people in the city each day, according to a report by Mumbai Railway Vikas Corp. Another 23 percent ride buses, and 9 percent use a public taxi or motorized rickshaw.
Kavita Bhatt, 31, commutes in a taxi because it's easier and cheaper than crawling through traffic at 3 miles per hour in the car she owns. "Commuting is a pain any way you look at it," said Bhatt, an executive at a research firm. "I drive to work once in a while, but it's impossible to find parking."
She drives mostly on weekends, when traffic is more manageable, in the new Hyundai Grand i10 hatchback that she shares with her father.
Even so, many emerging-market consumers yearn for auto ownership because it is an important marker of the transition from poverty to the middle class, said Steve Polzin, director of the Transit Research Program at the University of South Florida in Tampa.
"If the resources are there, people cherish mobility -- we can't underestimate the importance of that," Polzin said. "A car is 60 percent mobility and 40 percent ego."
In China, only 44 out of each 1,000 residents own a vehicle -- compared with 423 in 1,000 in the U.S., according to the World Bank -- and people like Shanghai native Michelle Ding are set on becoming the first in their families to own a car.
"When your economic means hit a certain level, it makes sense," said Ding, a 28-year-old who commutes an hour each way to her job as a project supervisor for a commercial developer. Driving to work will cut her commute time in half, she said.
Younger Americans Cool to Cars
Meanwhile, America's century-long love affair with the car is cooling. The number of households without a car grew to 9.2 percent in 2012, from 8.7 percent in 2007, said Sivak of the University of Michigan. In New York, Washington, Boston, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Baltimore, more than 30 percent of households were carless, according to U.S. Census data. In 21 of America's 30 largest cities, carless households grew from 2007 to 2012, Sivak found.
Young people are three times more likely than older generations to abandon their vehicle if costs increase, according to Deloitte's 2014 Global Automotive Consumer Study. They also have a greater desire to live in a neighborhood where everything is in walking distance and to use car-sharing and car-pooling, Deloitte found.
"The likelihood is pretty good that we have reached the peak per person or per household" in the U.S., said Sivak, who has produced five studies on the topic. "We have fewer vehicles and we drive each of them less."
Some of the decline can be attributed to the recession and the relatively slow recovery, Polzin said. As people regain wealth, he said, some of those trends will reverse.
Tanya Loh, 35, went carless and hasn't looked back. Loh, who works at an e-commerce startup in San Francisco's Dogpatch neighborhood, ditched her 2006 Volkswagen Jetta TDI diesel a year ago after she realized the city had more convenient transportation options.
"I'm not anti-car," said Loh, who grew up in the suburbs of car-crazy Los Angeles and learned to drive a manual transmission at 16. "It was about efficiency and about optimizing the time that I have."
Bike, Motor Scooter, Transit Pass, Taxi, Car Sharing
Loh's wheels now: a Dutch bicycle and a used Vespa motor scooter. She has a pass for the San Francisco transit system. She also uses smartphone applications from Uber, Lyft and Flywheel Software Inc. to summon private cars for hire and taxis, as well as the City CarShare service. Loh says she has cut her monthly transportation costs in half. She also gains efficiency by working on the bus, she said, without having to worry about her safety or parking.
%VIRTUAL-article-sponsoredlinks%The solution for avoiding global gridlock may come from an as-of-yet unforeseen technology, said Eric Morris, an assistant professor of city and regional planning at Clemson University in South Carolina whose research looks at future innovations and lessons from the past.
In 1898, at the world's first international urban planning conference, many attendees predicted that manure left behind by horses pulling coaches and wagons would soon pile up to New York City's third-story windows, he said.
They didn't predict the impact of a technology that had been invented more than a decade earlier. By 1912, cars outnumbered horses. By 1920, the internal combustion engine had replaced oats-fueled horse power altogether, Morris said.
That long-ago urban-planning conference still speaks to the greatest challenge in this emerging new era of mobility -- persuading auto-obsessed consumers they will no longer need their own set of wheels.
"It's really pretty hard to go to somebody and say 'Can you imagine a day will come when you won't need a car?'" said Phil Gott, senior director of long range planning at IHS in Lexington, Massa. "Because the obvious answer is 'What, are you nuts? I'll always need a car.' But in fact, people are moving into the cities and doing with fewer cars and in some cases with no cars."