Is car ownership “peaking” in America?

In America, few things are sacred, but cars are

By Morf Morford
Tacoma Daily Index

The New York Times had a recent article that made the claim that we are at “peak podcast(https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/18/style/why-are-there-so-many-podcasts.html).

They said that there are 700,000 podcasts to choose from  – and most of them are self (or zero) funded and with about that same level of passion, knowledge or credibility.

When anyone thinks that they can put together a podcast, almost everyone does, and like blogs a few years ago, the market is flooded and quality seems to drop by the day.

Any social media forum lives or dies based on its popularity. If it goes “viral”, money pours in. If not, either the podcast continues or the podcasters give up. But if they don’t want to give up, and their numbers are bad, they can, as with Twitter, “buy” listeners -https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/01/27/technology/social-media-bots.html?.

But either way, the future of podcasting is clear – the market is thinning out as fewer and fewer producers find podcasting worth doing.

Podcasting is only one of the arenas which seem to be experiencing “peaking” lately.

Many industry observers make the point that we are at peak car ownership.

The same principles of podcasting stand true when it comes to auto ownership.

Owning a car; once the ultimate hallmark of middle class membership, has been declining and almost certainly will never reach its peak of just a few years ago.

Car ownership impacts us all. In Europe alone, the automotive construction industry accounts for roughly 12 million jobs (including related jobs); in the US, more than 8 million; and in Japan, more than 5 million.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics posts that 884,000 people are employed in motor vehicles and parts manufacturing, and an additional 3.02 million in the dealer and maintenance network. Truck, bus, delivery, and taxi drivers account for nearly 6 million professional driving jobs. Virtually all of these 10 million jobs will be eliminated within 10-15 years.

World wide there are 50 to 100 million driving jobs.

But besides jobs, the decline of car ownership impacts us in all kinds of non-financial ways as well; eliminating monthly car payments will yield trillions in additional disposable income, commutes will improve – enabling workers to work while commuting could potentially add 12-20% to productivity and GDP.

Movement of goods by trucking could be vastly more efficient and fast.

Traffic jams and parking problems could be eliminated.

Traffic accidents, injuries and deaths  – and related insurance expenses could be virtually eliminated.

Existing road capacity could be boosted by over five times.

The landscape of cities and neighborhoods could be transformed.

Self driving cars or ride hailing services will help those of all ages and abilities to be more mobile and independent.

In other words, at least as many opportunities will open up as will be closed by the decline of individual car ownership.

Cars, romance, adventure, freedom and food - they all come together in a typical American landscape. Photo: Morf Morford

Cars, romance, adventure, freedom and food – they all come together in a typical American landscape. Photo: Morf Morford

As you might imagine, the peak – and inevitable decline of any industry is never easy.

Personal car ownership is nearly sacred in America – we love our cars like nothing else.

I know many people who have had a more enduring relationship with their vehicle than with any person.

I know many others who measure their major life benchmarks, not by years (or even spouse or children) but by the car or truck they had at the time.

A few years ago I was walking in my neighborhood and saw a woman sitting in her new Miata convertible as it was parked in her front yard. Miatas were new then and I asked her how she liked it. “It’s better than chocolate” she purred.

Self-driving cars terrify many of these people – not because they aren’t safe; autonomous cars will never be 100% safe – but, for better or worse, making them safer than human driven cars is relatively easy – unfortunately, that is a remarkably low bar.

Self-driving cars strike at the heart of what is to be an America – untethered, independent and uncontrolled.

No substitute will ever be found for the mythic feel of the road and our hands on the wheel.

Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.  - Jack Kerouac

Jack Kerouac’s 1957 classic book ‘On the Road” crystallized the road trip as the ultimate near-legendary American coming of age experience. Freedom to roam, the American road trip, defines us in ways that we can barely put into words.

A tank full of gas and a day off is freedom.

Uber, Lyft, autonomous cars and even Lime scooters are transportation. But as always it seems, we Americans demand far more than transportation from our vehicles – we want to be transformed, we imagine ourselves to be the drivers in the car ads on television;  forever young, free and powerful.

The revving of engines stirs our blood like nothing else.

The near silent hum of a hybrid is like a breath. It might get us from point A to point B, but it will never stir our rage and passion like the roar of a classic combustion engine.

For better or worse, fast and furious on four wheels is, literally, how we roll.