04 Apr

On Cars and generations

Between Millenials one side of the pincer not being interested in driving nearly to the extent previous generations were, and between baby boomers retiring and realizing it would be nice to be able to walk places, a very interesting demographic crunch is coming our way:

“It used to be that having your own car provided the ultimate sense of freedom for young adults, allowing them a means to get together with friends, establish independence and separate from their parents. It was a critical right of passage to real adulthood to drive your own car, and it was the one place you could blast music without your parents complaining. Popular movies of the later Baby Boomer’s and Gen X’s coming of age, such as Risky Business and Dazed and Confused shaped this generation’s sense of self, portraying images of fancy sports cars as the ultimate young adult possession.

Today however, older teens and young adults don’t need cars to achieve a sense of self and freedom. This generation’s coming of age consisted of graduating from the Internet and CD-ROM computer games to hand-held mobile devices where they’re establishing identities, relationships, and individualism online all day long–as much as, if not more than, in the real world.”

(Via Millennials Don’t Care About Owning Cars, And Car Makers Can’t Figure Out Why | Co.Exist | ideas + impact.)

Interesting thing in Europe, too:

We know that Europeans love their bicycles — think Amsterdam or Paris. Denmark even has highways specifically for cyclists.

Indeed, earlier this month, NPR’s Lauren Frayer reported that Spain, which has long had a love affair with cars, is embracing the bicycle: For the first time on record, Lauren noted, bicycles outsold cars in the country.

But it’s becoming a Continent-wide phenomenon. More bikes were sold in Italy than cars — for the first time since World War II.

This prompted us to look at the figures across the 27 member states of the European Union for both cars and bicycles. New-car registrations for Cyprus and Malta weren’t available, so we took them out of the comparison.

Here’s what we found: Bicycle sales outpaced new-car sales last year in every one of those countries, except Belgium and Luxembourg. The top five countries by bicycle sales can be seen in the top chart.

02 Jan

Ford develops car with solar panel roof that can recharge itself

I mean, that’s the fantasy, isn’t it? A car with solar panels in the top that can juice itself up enough for your driving needs?

“Ford has developed a concept model that runs primarily on solar power, which could bring the world one step closer to having a vehicle for everyday driving that is not dependent on traditional energy sources.

The C-MAX Solar Energi Concept is a collaboration between Ford, SunPower Corp. and the Georgia Institute of Technology. The concept car is expected to be unveiled next week at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.”

(Via Ford develops solar powered car for everyday use.)

10 Jul

Impact of car-oriented design on health

I’m constantly stunned at the number of people who use a car to travel 1/2 a mile. But this article is right, some of that is because we live in environs that make even a 1/2 mile walk appear easier to do in a car.


“According to the Federal Highway Administration’s 2009 National Household Transportation Survey, 68 percent of the trips taken by U.S. residents between ½ and 2 miles in distance were made by vehicle. Only 23 percent of such trips were made on foot.

One-third of respondents reported no walking trips whatsoever in the previous week.

‘The greatest barrier to walking more is the perception of too much traffic, not enough street lighting, or wide road crossings,’ reports the FHWA. ‘People are also concerned about crime, had no nearby paths or sidewalks, and were too busy to walk more often.’”

(Via A treadmill desk or trip to the gym is not a substitute for the perils of a sedentary lifestyle – Quartz.)

07 Jun

Not all disintermediation is the same?

Maybe. The backlash against Tesla is interesting to me because it’s a clear win. I have a hard time not seeing Tesla’s success as a win.

“The Internet did not sweep the world because it was a hype job foisted upon us by a 20-something wunderkind from Harvard. It took over because as soon as we saw it we realized it was something we could not live without. We found it to be incredibly useful.”

(Via The bogus Tesla backlash: What if the Internet saves the middle class? – Salon.com.)

27 May

Twitter-powered electric car

Well, it’s not really powered by Twitter, as such. But it uses Facebooks likes and retweets to send the signal to continue. An interesting experiment, brought to my attention by Kerry Kuhn in the inbox:

“Converting old gas-powered cars to run on electricity has become easy enough that Minddrive, a Kansas City non-profit, has made such conversions part of an after-school education program for inner-city teen-agers. For this year’s project, Minddrive decided to set a higher bar by challenging the students to build a car powered by tweets and Facebook posts.”

(Via Teens build electric car powered by Twitter, Facebook posts | Motoramic – Yahoo! Autos.)

23 Mar

The decoupling of drivers from population growth

This chart is damn useful. Can you see the point at which population and licensed car drives decouples? It’s somewhere between 1991-1997:


What happened between 1991-1997 that began a shift in perception among young drivers?

While the decoupling is still not super drastic, that’s not a surprise. Like when a train car continues to follow along out of momentum, they still look close. But what happens as the decoupling continues?

Most American infrastructure decisions are made by people who live with assumptions that there is a coupling in that chart because they grew up during the coupling period.

“There has been lots of speculation about why fewer young people are getting driver’s licenses (and why even those who do have them seem to be driving less). Is it the economy, which has been particularly brutal for young people lately? Is it the rising cost of gas? Is it the tougher driver’s licensing laws that make it more expensive and difficult to get a license? Is it because young people are too busy cuddling with their iPhones and iPads to get behind the wheel?

There are arguments to be made for any and all of these explanations. But less often is the question asked: Why does it matter that young people just aren’t that into cars anymore?

One important reason it matters is because today’s young people are tomorrow’s main users of our transportation systems. If the useful life of the transportation infrastructure we build today — the highways, light rail lines, bike lanes and sidewalks — is roughly 40 years, that neatly envelops the peak earning and daily travel years of people currently in their late teens and early twenties. If fewer Millennials are driving, that should influence our choices about how we invest in transportation.”

(Via As Youth Driver Licensing Dips Again, A Focus on the Millennials | Streetsblog Capitol Hill.)

08 Feb

The upcoming US generational shift few are paying attention to

Chris Mims notes on twitter:

Gen-Y-ers asked if they preferred 25 minute drive, or 50 min. bus-ride, WITH WIFI. 80% chose latter. 80% of Boomers chose car.

Boomers, of course, dominate politics and choices about infrastructure. For all their talk of planning for the future, it’s quite clear this is one of the most massive breaks with Gen-Y and boomers. Gen-Y has different expectations about what ‘freedom’ means. Freedom is the freedom to play/socialize/work while going somewhere.


pic via Flickr user jpott

Boomers believe that the monthly cost of a car, insurance, infrastructure cost of roads, and the time cost (and loss of cognitive surplus spent by hours of commuting) are freedom.

Boomers are going to get old and retire soon, and find it harder and harder to drive around the world they created. They’ve left most of their parents to sit in retirement homes, often with limited access to a wider world because they can’t drive as it is.

Gen-Y already mostly rejects the car-centric world they created. Driving licenses are the on the decline. Miles driven are on the decline.

Once boomers start getting bunged into retirement home and Gen-Y has the reigns of politics, the change will accelerate. And it will be interesting.

18 Jan

The Detroit Auto Show does the electric shuffle

I love fast cars. Pretty cars as well. I despise econo-boxes. I love anything electric. Because I hate the fact that after 40 years, our cars still get basically the same gas mileage.

So when my stepdad asked if I wanted to travel up to the Detroit Auto Show, along with my younger brother, I signed up out of a desire to see the Chevy Volt.

After some shenanigans in getting parked we meandered around Cobo center.

As you might expect, there were sexy fast cars:


Mercedes, BMW, Chevy with its Camaro, Ford and the Mustang, even a Ferrari and a Maserati were there. As someone who has a penchant for low-to-the-ground, nimble vehicles, it’s fun seeing cars like the new Audis. I’m always game for a trip to see cars like that.

But the truth is, I suspect the Detroit Auto show is more about what consumers in general can expect for the years ahead, and the reason I wanted to attend was that I had a suspicion that the tenor for this year was going to have a strong focus on alternative fueled cars, more so than you’d expect from a mainstream consumer focused show. Because 2011 is a big year for vehicles aiming to bring high miles-to-the-gallon into the mainstream.

The first one we ran into was the Smart Car, something I found a bit of pointless vehicle. With an MPG not all that different from a Hyundai but twice the cost and a third of the usable space? What’s the point? You’re not saving the environment, helping your wallet, *and* you’re all scrunched up. The only argument that makes sense is that it’s easy to park:


That being said, Smart finally introduced the electric Smart, which is what I understand the original concept for it had been:


As a 66 mile range commuter city car, easy to park in tight spots, it sort of makes sense. At $44,000, it’s more expensive than a Chevy Volt, though. WTF? Additionally, Smart faces a major uphill climb in convincing consumers it’s safe to drive in (it is, people just look at it and assume it is not). You can see by the signage how hard they’re working against this perception:


Smart did have an electric scooter prototype displayed, as well as a bike, but no information on when they’d go on sale or how much they’d cost. If pricing is anything like their car, expect it to be twice the cost of any other similar option.


Next up I swung in on Tesla Motors and got to touch a Tesla Roadster.


It’s the car that stopped people from assuming electric cars were slow and fugly as fuck. This is how America works. Sexy sells, and green-oriented hair shirt environmentalism is not how you sell a car. Designing a car that makes people want to pose with it (I couldn’t get a shot without people taking their pictures next to it) is how you sell the viability of electric to mainstream America. Thank you Tesla, the vibe at this show is in part, thanks to your getting people excited about electric cars.

Tesla had a partial frame of their S-coupe their as well:


VW had the next electric car I saw displayed, the blue-e-motion (seeing all these electric car chargers displayed was amazing):


It’s basically an electric Golf that can go up to 84MPH and gets a range of 84 miles. Sadly, it’s planned for 2013 and there’s no information about price. Still, it was one of many displayed electric models that seemed to add up to a sense that we may well be on a cusp moment.


Toyota’s plug in hybrid is one I’ve been following carefully. The concept is one that I like, it eliminates ‘range anxiety’ of battery-only vehicles by letting you drive 13 miles on electric only, and then the normal hybrid system the Prius has kicks in. For many, this would eliminate a lot of quick trips that use gas. Furthermore, Toyota, unlike Smart, say, realizes that customers aren’t just vomiting spare cash all over the place, and they try to keep the price of their Prius’s in the $16-$26,000 range (you know, realistically purchasable for a larger range of customers) which is why the more limited range on electric only, though they’re estimating low $30s.

It’s also not coming out until 2012. I wouldn’t be surprised if they up the initial range a bit. The average American commute is 16 miles. Get the Prius into that, you have a marketing campaign.

For me the sleeper surprise was Ford, who’ve been working hard to change themselves over the last two years. This was really evident with their very wide and integrate hybrid options and now electric options. Ford is not making a special ‘green car,’ but just rolling the option out, it seems.

Planned for later this year, the Focus Electric is a 100 mile range vehicle that they’re hoping to offer for $30k (22.5K after tax credit), putting this car firmly in the affordable range.


This was the center of the Ford display, a chance for people to line up and ride the Focus Electric. And hearing the smooth whine of an electric motor moving past me was wild. Three years ago, I wouldn’t have believed that I would be at the biggest *auto* show and see from almost all the major manufacturers such a strong push for these sorts of cars.

Last, but not least, was the car that one could make a case for being the star of the show. A lot of people were crowded around, and GM had a number of people out there to take questions.

It’s the Chevy Volt:



The body styling makes it look beefier than it really is. It’s a comfortably mid-sized car. It’s nice and roomy inside. It feels well put together. It doesn’t look like a hatchback, but surprisingly, it is (I love the usability of hatchbacks). I was really impressed with it.

But GM has a long way to go, even at the auto show, at least half the crowd was confused as to whether it was an all electric vehicle, or a a hybrid (well, it’s sort of neither). But once the basics were explained (you get 30-40 miles of electric only, then a gas engine turns on to charge the batteries, and you get all the range your gas can give you, but your mileage drops to 50-60MPG) people were more interested and understanding of what exactly it was. After some education, there were a number of converts in the crowd I was in who were just stunned that such a concept was in front of them, and buyable! I was quite amused. Alternative vehicles have been sold to the mainstream as failures, but a lot of people were coming around at the show.

While I was there I chatted with an enthusiastic line worker from GM (we make these motherfuckers! They’re incredible! You can use a battery and NO gas for most of your driving up around town, but if you gotta go visit your family and shit, then pow, you’ve got the gas if you need it).

The $40,000 price tag (33 after tax credit) still makes it seem a bit high for me, but with all the buzz, hopefully early adopters and a general need for a vehicle like this brings the price down.

I was initially skeptical of a ‘range extended’ vehicle, more in love with battery only, but the more I consider the real world uses of cars, particularly in the US, the more I think the Volt’s image of how to transition us into fuel efficiency is a very compelling way.

As this chart from a story about how the Volt came to be points out, it’s really a very elegant solution and I think the better one:

Fortunately, what’s awesome is that there are three different paths being heavily tested now: battery-only vehicles, hybrid plugins, and range extended battery vehicles. In the next couple years, we’re going to start seeing how these cars do in the real world.

And that, I think, is going to be the interesting thing to watch. And because we haven’t gone all in on one way, whichever one survives, we win.

For a science fiction writer, this was a heavy dose of future-on-the-horizon sort of stuff. I loved it.