“Cars, Schmars”

What’s the biggest challenge facing the auto industry today?

What’s the biggest challenge facing the auto industry today? Emissions regulations? Fuel prices? Lack of available credit?

How about disinterest among the next generation of buyers? As in: “Cars—who needs ‘em?”

That’s a message that Jim Lentz, president and COO of Toyota Motor Sales, delivered, in effect, to the audience at the Automotive News World Congress a couple weeks ago.

Listen:

“We have to face the growing reality that today young people don’t seem to be as interested in cars as previous generations. When I was growing up, I couldn’t WAIT to get my license and buy my dream car, a red, 1971 Mercury Cougar XR-7, with a big V8 engine and 240 horses under the hood. MAN, I loved that car!!!  In fact, I think I was first in line at the department of motor vehicles on my birthday.

“And most of my friends felt the same way.  We wanted to get our licenses as soon as we could because it was our ticket to freedom, a rite of passage to becoming responsible adults! Well…adults…anyway….

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“But these days, many young people care more about buying the latest smart phone or gaming console than getting their driver’s license.  With technologies like Skype, video smart phones, iPads and Facebook, it’s easier, in their eye, to instantly connect and communicate with friends and family from the comfort of their home.

“Many see cars as a source of cost, congestion and pollution, not freedom or adulthood, and that’s a serious problem that together as an industry we need to address.

“We need to find ways for young people to fall in love with cars the way most of us did in our youth. We have to provide an emotional connection so that cars are seen not as utilitarian commodities but vital to living a fulfilling life.”

I’ve actually heard more than one auto executive express this concern—more than one whose kids are delaying or seemingly foregoing getting their licenses.

Arguably, the way to capture at least some of the disinterested cadre is through the creation of great designs—great designs in their eyes, not great in the context of “This is what we do in the auto industry, so they ought to like it.”

Evidentially they don’t.

Lentz stated to the crowd of industry people, “In short, we need to pool together and develop campaigns that re-build the image of our industry and our products in the minds of young people. They are vital to our future as an industry, both as employees and as consumers.”

I don’t think that the Auto Industry writ large needs to have some sort of campaign a la Cotton Inc. Rather, they ought to take what they’d spend on said campaign and make some kick-ass cars and trucks that the kids really want to have.