How We Move

The Great Car Debate

The Only Thing We Love Like Our Vehicles Is Arguing About Their Fate

BY Carolyn YatesMay 3, 2019

If there’s one thing we can predict about the future, it’s that we can’t predict the future—especially when it comes to our relationships with cars.

Some experts say that private car ownership is over, pointing to foreboding stats like the mere 26 percent of U.S. 16-year-olds who obtained a driver’s license in 2017. Others insist that cars aren’t going anywhere, citing that two-car urban households are actually on the rise.

So who should you believe? The truth remains to be seen, of course. But in the meantime, debate over the fate of the driven vehicle has become a cottage industry of its own.

“The Car Is Dead…”

“I will die before I buy another car,” Kara Swisher wrote in a recent New York Times op-ed in which she argued that having your own car, along with “purchasing, maintaining, insuring, and garaging” it, will soon become as quaint as having your own horse.

And while Swisher wrote that she expects to use cars until she dies, she argued that despite the sentimentality attached to it, private car ownership is doomed just like so many other traditional processes—from physical street maps to snail mail to prime-time TV.

Similar articles on the slow death of the car have graced nearly every major publication, including a multi-story special report in Bloomberg Businessweek that pointed out the auto industry is already far behind where it expected to be a decade ago. Global auto sales hit 94.2 million auto in 2018—1 million fewer than the year before and well off the 100 million global vehicle sales the industry predicted by now.

“The idea of physically owning a car will still be desirable for some people, but for others, it will become obsolete and even cumbersome,” Gregory Golinski of YourParkingSpace told Fair. “Autonomous vehicles will decrease car ownership even more.”

“Long Live The Car!”

Hold on, say other experts who are not so convinced of the demise of the self-driven car—or of Swisher’s predictions.

“[H]er claims read more like those of a Silicon Valley visionary residing high in an ivory tower, detached from the realities of not only how most Americans truly live, but also how many actually want to live,” Eric Adams wrote for Forbes. “Spoiler alert: We like cars.”

Adams claims that Swisher’s "the car is dead" argument fails to pass the smell test for several reasons. One, it assumes the vast spread of ridesharing to more suburban parts of the country. Secondly, Adams claimed her complaints about traffic and congestion are skewed by her very specific experience living in San Francisco.

“People live in suburban and rural areas, they have kids that need to go places, and they have vacations, road trips, and assorted adventures of which their cars are and always have been a huge part,” Adams wrote. “Those factors aren’t going to vanish from peoples’ consciousness because of some apps.”

In his story for CityLab, Bruce Schaller cited that at least 20 percent of households in major American cities (except for New York) have more than two cars—and that the number is on the rise. Contributing factors include job growth, an influx of affluent urban professionals, and falling gas prices.

Even in Seattle, where there’s an increase in transit ridership and in car-light or car-free households, vehicle ownership has still grown faster than population since 2012, according to the CityLab article.

“From mid-2000 to 2012, transit ridership increased while car ownership grew slowly, if at all. But now car ownership is expanding faster than population,” Schaller wrote.

And despite the unfounded assumption that Millennials are killing cars, data suggests that they actually travel more vehicle miles than Baby Boomers when analysis controls for factors like geography, marital status and family size.

“Millennials operate under many of the same constraints as prior generations—that is, with spread-out cities, a lack of transit service, lengthy commutes, and a broad social expectation that a car is how you get from A to B,” Laura Bliss wrote for CityLab. “As long as those factors don’t change, it will be tough for this or any other generation to kill the car.”

Even robo-taxis (AKA autonomous vehicles) might lead to more car ownership rather than less, as a SingularityHub article recently argued. Lower costs, the ability to do more in your car, and the desire to store more personal belongings in it could all drive more demand for a personal self-driving car—not less.

Either Way, Change Is Coming

While the debate over the future role of the car rages on, almost nobody disputes that one thing will drastically change: how we access them.

One major shift is already under way in the form of subscription-style services that let drivers access a vehicle without the long-term commitment, negotiation, or baked-in debt of buying one through a traditional car loan.

In fact, Forbes cites that a possible 16 million vehicles could be in subscription services by 2025, offering consumers increased flexibility, cost effectiveness and simplicity.

“I think that car leasing and subscription packages—where you pay a monthly fee to use a car but don't actually have to buy it and aren't the legal owner—are probably going to be rising in popularity alongside autonomous, ride-hailing vehicles,” said Will Craig of LeaseFetcher.

However things go for the car, we’ll all no doubt have plenty to read about its will-it-or-won’t-it path into the future. And the truth about its destiny will probably fall in the same place it usually does in these kinds of all-or-nothing scenarios—somewhere in the middle.

“Scooters will end many woes, and self-driving capability will boost safety and improve traffic flow on the highways, alleviating congestion… But cars—and trucks!—are part of the fabric of our lives,” Adams wrote in his Forbes piece. “They, along with car-sharing and ride-hailing, are all part of the complex equation that will average out to improved mobility for everyone, and there is no single solution.”

Nice whip. No loan.

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