Car- and ride-sharing programs -- called upon via smartphone applications -- are changing the way city dwellers get around and the way millennials think about car ownership.
The convenience is indisputable. Pull up the app for Zipcar or Car2Go and reserve a nearby car for short-term use. Or use the Uber app to summon a driver and a car.
The new services seem ready to conquer the world: Uber has been valued at $17 billion by investors. Automakers have noticed and are experimenting with ways to adapt -- creating partnerships with car-sharing services or offering their own transportation services.
But do these services pose a serious threat to the traditional automotive market? The short answer is no, most observers say. The trend is mostly urban, and millennials still buy cars, but they're typically waiting until they start a family to do so.
Still, the industry acknowledges that younger drivers are postponing car ownership in favor of less expensive memberships with urban car-sharing and ride-sharing services.
"I've seen a trend -- probably over the last two years or so ... first-time buyers are around 25, and before, they used to be 18, 19," said Steve Loya, sales manager at Capitol Kia in Austin, Texas. "Hasn't hurt sales at all. Actually, we've increased."
Millennials are plagued with mounds of college debt while entering a fiercely competitive job market, making them less likely candidates for car ownership. Curtis Hamilton, a sales manager at Acura of Boston, said many first-time buyers are cost-conscious college graduates in their mid-20s.
Young buyers "are thinking more efficiently," Hamilton said. "They're thinking about downsizing costs."
Austin and Boston, urban college towns, are the kinds of areas where car-sharing and ride-sharing services thrive. Consumers in cities like them are exactly the demographic targeted by these services. In fact, Austin is the U.S. birthplace of the car-sharing service Car2Go, while Boston is the birthplace of Zipcar.
Although the uptick in transportation service memberships is noticeable in urban areas, Susan Shaheen, director of the Transportation Sustainability Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley, has predicted that the U.S. car-sharing market will include about 3.8 million users by 2020 -- just 1 percent of the population at that time -- based on the current estimates of about 25 percent growth in car-sharing memberships annually.
Even with the millennial generation putting off car ownership in favor of transportation service memberships, the car market in the United States is better now than it has been since the recession. Analysts forecast more than 16 million light-vehicle sales in 2014. The average dealership's sales volume is 20 percent higher through June than it was in 2006.
In 2007, the 34-44 age group dominated with a 28.7 percent share of the new-car buyer market, according to IHS Automotive. At the end of 2013, the 45-54 age group held the largest share of the market, at 23.5 percent.
Ford's chief U.S. sales analyst Erich Merkle said even the company's millennial buyers are on the older end of the generation.
The company's market share of the millennial demographic rose to 12 percent in 2013 from a little more than 9 percent in 2009, but those buyers tend to be in the 25-34 age bracket, according to Merkle.
He said the Explorer contributes most to Ford's market share of the millennial segment. Of the millennials who purchase the Explorer, 98 percent are between ages 25 and 34.
Even though millennials are waiting longer to have children than their parents did, starting a family remains a trigger for car buying.
"As we start to see the emerging family among millennials, needs for millennials will change dramatically in terms of cars," Merkle said.
John Krafcik, president of TrueCar, is skeptical about car-sharing services becoming a primary form of transportation in the United States. "I don't know that those are necessarily going to be long-term substitutes for cars," he said.
Krafcik said American car buyers tend to prioritize occasional use over everyday use when vehicle shopping. American buyers want cars that will take them on long trips and family vacations, for instance.
"I think that's something that is fundamentally different about the American car buyer," he said.