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Almost Half of Today’s Teens Prefer Smartphones to Owning a Car

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April10 033 (Texting driver)

Are today’s teenagers more interested in smartphones as a right of passage than in cars? Writing for The New York Times blog Bits last Sunday, Nick Bilton quotes two auto industry spokespeople who seem to think so:

‘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.’

A Gartner survey to be published before the end of the year found that among people ages 18 to 24, 46% would choose Internet access over having their own car. Among baby boomers, only 15% would opt for the Internet over a car. “The iPhone is the Ford Mustang of today,” Koslowski told Bits.

And in what would be for some a shocking statistic, from the U.S. Transportation Department: In 2008, only 30% of 16-year-olds got their first driver’s license, as compared with 50% of 16-year-olds in 1978.

Bilton of Bits writes that Ford’s Connelly has an explanation for the shift. And that is that driving a car limits the time teens could use to text with their friends. Public transportation or having to wait for parents to give them a ride might be slower, but it frees teens to send and read text messages without having to worry about driving.

Bilton writes:

‘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.

While the auto industry thinks of ways to make cars more entertaining for the generation that loves social networking almost more than cars, there are those who question the idea of adding yet more distractions for drivers (at least before vehicles are advanced enough to drive themselves).

Also writing on Sunday, in The Washington Post, Steven Overly discusses a smartphone app designed to let drivers calculate the cost of a road trip, then adds:

There’s an app for almost any everyday function, and automobile travel is no exception. But the creators are being forced to address questions about safety and distracted driving when those apps compel users to pick up a phone while on the road.

Overly mentions one company, Zoomsafer, that outfits a company’s fleet of vehicles and mobile phones with software that promotes the safe, legal and hands-free use of cell phones while driving. The company was founded in 2009 after Matt Howard, its chief executive, nearly killed a nine-year-old boy “while fiddling with his phone behind the wheel.” Zoomsafer later shifted its focus to the business market because, Howard told Overly, ordinary customers were too hard to attract and make profitable.

“The only question now becomes, what are we going to do as consumers or as employers to balance the use of these devices while driving?” Howard said. “You can pass all the laws you want. You can tell people it’s a bad idea. But what we know is when you’re there behind the wheel of your car, left to your own devices, and your phone beeps, it’s very hard to put it down and not reply.”

Image by Lord Jim (Stefan Kloo), used under its Creative Commons license.


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