Future Tense

The Self-Driving Car Generation Gap

Older people see driving as representing freedom.

Older Driver.
Will driverless cars one day help persuade the elderly to hand over their keys?


On Jan. 22, 1984, one of the most famous advertisements in American history debuted during Super Bowl XVIII, the one and only time it appeared on nationwide television. Advertising the Apple Macintosh personal computer, it showed a single brave heroine outrunning the thought police to destroy ideology, conformity, and totalitarianism, and ended with the tag line “On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like 1984.” It did a lot of things. It gave the Apple brand an individualistic, somewhat countercultural, flavor, which the firm retains even today, when it is one of the behemoths of the global economy. More importantly, perhaps, it provides an insight into technology systems that tells us a lot about autonomous vehicles and their likely routes of acceptance into mainstream culture.

To understand this, consider another advertisement: the Dodge Challenger George Washington masterpiece, which aired in 2010 during the World Cup. This is not as subtle as Apple’s, which, after all, assumes a certain political sophistication and familiarity with literature (George Orwell’s 1984). Rather, it depicts George Washington driving a car that routs the British redcoats (maybe in Oregon? Really?), but it ends with a tagline that doesn’t even have to mention the car: “Here’s a couple of things America got right: cars and freedom.” In fact, when my undergraduate students watch it, they have a pretty dissonant response: They find it incredibly hokey and cheesy … but they also admit that it really is emotionally effective.

So what do these two advertisements tell us about technology generally and autonomous vehicles in particular? This becomes more apparent when one recognizes that these are really the same advertisement in different dress. Both occur in a context of fighting authoritarianism: in Apple’s case, the totalitarian Big Brother; in Dodge’s case, the British redcoats opposing American patriots. Both, in other words, depict their products as the technology of freedom. And, importantly, this is not just marketing talking (although certainly marketing helps create the effect). Some technologies become psychologically charged in ways that no others do. Advertising air conditioners, for example, as technologies of freedom would not work, even though they have freed millions and millions of people to live in places they otherwise couldn’t, such as the desert Southwest.

But cars are different. They represent individual freedom, the ability to go where you want, when you want. As Krystal D’Costa says in Scientific American, “Cars have long been symbols for personal freedom. With the open road before you you can go anywhere—from behind the wheel you really take control of your destiny. In this regard, cars are empowering. Ownership means that you have the means to be independently mobile, that you own not just a vehicle but choice as well.” You’re not buying two tons of material; you’re buying the open road. That’s why getting your driver’s license used to be the critical rite of passage for any adolescent American male.

But here the operative phrase is “used to be.” Research shows that fewer and fewer millennials are getting driving licenses. A University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute study, for example, showed that there was a continuous decrease in the percentage of people with driver’s licenses among 16- through 44-year-olds and that the percent of people not having driver’s licenses in the lowest age group was increasing over time.

By contrast, according to Nielsen, 85 percent of the 18–24 age group, and fully 86 percent of the 25–34 age group, owned smartphones in 2014, a dramatic increase from 77 percent and 80 percent, respectively, just a year earlier. Google’s Consumer Barometer notes that 90 percent of the 16 to 34 age group go online daily, observing that “[y]oung people don’t go online, they live online. … They live everyday lives with their offline and online worlds intertwined.” While there are obviously individual exceptions, the trends are pretty clear: For older folks, automobiles were, and are, the technology of freedom; you’ll get them into autonomous vehicles when you can peel the stick shift out of their cold, dead fingers. For younger people, automobiles, especially in cities, are becoming an unnecessary complication to their busy lives—a car detracts, rather than augments, their freedom and mobility. Rather, it is their smartphone that gives them access to the world and that they perceive gives them freedom. To punish a teenager in the 1960s, you took away the cars keys; to punish a teenager today, you have to take away the smartphone. In some ways, today’s millennials are simply, finally, achieving what the Apple advertisement promised so long ago.

Of course, technologies of freedom are perceptions, not reality. Especially since cyberspace comes at the cost of privacy, and big data, and increasingly competent A.I. marketers, it is in many ways hardly free. And yet, in those most important human dimensions, the emotional and psychological, cars were, and personal electronic devices are, freedom for many. Underestimate their power at your peril.

So what are some of the implications of this reality for autonomous vehicles? Clearly, technological issues need to be worked out; so too do questions of law, regulation, and liability. But beyond that, the analysis suggested by these two advertisements raises some new and interesting possibilities.

First and most importantly, one would want to target millennials rather than older cohorts with autonomous vehicle technology, especially if it is accompanied by a shift from an owner/operator model to an on-demand service model. Millennials as a market segment are likely to be far more amenable to nonownership or shared ownership because they don’t have the same psychological attachment to the car as integral to one’s sense of personal freedom that many older consumers have. And, if you really want to rock autonomous vehicles, advertise them as offering millennials the ability to cruise cyberspace while going somewhere in their cute little on-demand, environmentally friendly, broadband-enabled, autonomous urban runabouts.

Second, while it is generally understood that automobile manufacturing and sales are ripe for disruption, this analysis provides something of a time frame for that shift. The shift to on-demand, autonomous personal transportation as a service, rather than vehicles as owned artifacts, that generational change will enable, could happen relatively quickly—perhaps in less than a decade as purchasing power shifts from the boomer to the millennial generation. And when it does, it will play havoc with existing business models.

Third, adoption of autonomous vehicle technology should begin with autonomous commercial vehicles rather than personal transportation. That’s because commercial services and products are generally perceived, and consumed, because of their economic utility and not so much for psychological reasons, so the “technology of freedom” effect is dampened. But combine this with the second point, and it also becomes probable that the shift to autonomous vehicles may happen more quickly than usually anticipated, and it might not just involve, but focus on, the commercial sectors where employment impacts may be highest—a pathway that has obvious policy implications if one wants to design a smooth introduction of such autonomous technologies. And who knows? It may well be that in time older people will come to see driverless cars as a technology of freedom, if it means that they can continue to move around even after they have to turn in their driver’s licenses because of aging.

This article is part of the self-driving cars installment of Futurography, a series in which Future Tense introduces readers to the technologies that will define tomorrow. Each month from January through June 2016, we’ll choose a new technology and break it down. Read more from Futurography on self-driving cars:

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