DETROIT - As smart phones, tablets and other sophisticated electronic devices become more ubiquitous, automakers worry that young people may become more interested in the newest gadget as opposed to owning a new car.
In a panel discussion at the Automotive News Green Car Conference in suburban Detroit Tuesday, several players on the front lines of developing new cars and light trucks spoke about how to make vehicles more attractive to younger drivers by stressing the importance of vehicle connectivity.
Bill Reinert, national alternative fuel vehicle manager at Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A., said the number of people between the ages of 16 and 21 who are eligible for a driver's license, but opt not to get them, is increasing.
"The love affair of when you stand in front of a Chevy dealer and wait for them to take the butcher's paper off, as I used to do with my dad - those days are gone," Reinert said.
Manuel Sattig, communications manager for BMW AG's project i, said interest in driving differs based on where young people live.
"If you consider younger people who live in Tokyo, they might not be as interested in actually owning a new vehicle as much as being mobile," Sattig said. "If you look at Los Angeles, for example, if you turn 16 you can hardly wait to get your driver's license and to get a car because it's needed to get around Los Angeles, not like in Tokyo."
Sattig added that car-sharing programs might be a viable alternative for drivers in urban areas who want the mobility that owning a car affords them, but don't actually want to own a vehicle.
As technology has become more prevalent, automobiles have become one of the few places where people can't use their smart technology to its fullest, said Paul Wilbur, president and CEO of electric carmaker Aptera.
Vehicle connectivity needs to improve in future vehicles, Wilbur said, or younger people may be less inclined to purchase an automobile.
"The iPhone is established," Wilbur said. "To the Gen Y folks, the issue is that they've become in love with the technology and now they get in the car and they don't have their technology anymore. That can't be."
Wilbur said the experience of using apps on a smart phone needs to be replicated safely and seamlessly somehow for drivers.
"If you like Brooks Brothers suits and you drive by a Brooks Brothers store and you coded (into the car) that you like Brooks Brothers - boom. You drive by the store and the smart app pops up that there's a 50 percent sale on suits, you turn around and drive in," Wilbur said.
Wilbur said automakers that fail to offer connectivity solutions will struggle to attract younger buyers raised with smart phones and tablets.
"We've fallen in love with technology, with the iPhone. Not to have it in your car, that's a problem," he said.
Still, the three panelists maintained that there needs to be a balance between technology and the automobile's primary function - getting passengers safely from point A to point B.
Said Sattig: "Driving still has to be fun."