Monday, August 13, 2012

Will autonomous cars motivate more teenagers to get behind the wheel?

I know, it seems like an odd question. But allow me to provide some context.

A few months ago, my colleague Andy Gryc predicted that autonomous cars will, in a few years, start rolling off the assembly lines. To support this prediction, he cited several trends, including two demographic factors: 1) baby boomers are getting older and hence losing their ability to drive safely, and 2) young people today are much more interested in connecting than in driving; they prefer to live their lives online.

I must admit, I thought the second factor was anecdotal at best. But boy, was I wrong… I think.

According to a new study published by the journal Traffic Injury Prevention, the number of young drivers is, in fact, falling precipitously. For instance, in 1983, 87.3% of 19-year-olds had a driver’s license. By 2008 that number had fallen to 75.5%, and by 2010 it had tumbled to 69.5%.

Similar drops occurred in other age groups under 40, but the trend is far more pronounced among teenagers and twenty-somethings. Here’s a graph from the article:

So what accounts for the trend? According to the authors, Michael Sivak and Brandon Schoettle, the decrease in driver licensing is consistent with the increase in Internet usage — an interpretation that falls in line with Andy Gryc’s hypothesis. I, too, believe that the Internet is a factor. But is it the only one?

In July, Jordan Weissmann of The Atlantic wrote a short piece on Sivak and Brandon’s article, and if the comments are anything to go by, the trend is the result of many contributing factors, not just one. Commenters noted that, since the 1980s, gas prices have gone up; teenagers face more restrictions when applying for licenses; parents have become more protective; and cars, with all their electronics, can no longer be maintained by an teenager with a wrench and a smattering of mechanical skills. And let’s not forget the elephant in the room: the lack of jobs available to young people.

So, to return to our original question, will autonomous cars spur more young people to get behind the wheel? If young people are losing interest in driving because they’d rather stay connected, possibly yes. But if serious economic factors are at play, probably not.

What do you think?

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