Will Our Children Drive?

By John Eichberger | February 2016

I had a discussion the other day about the future of driving and whether my daughter (now almost two years old) will ever have a driver’s license. The argument presented to me was that autonomous technology would advance at such a rapid pace that she will never need to learn to drive and, more to the point, will not want to learn to drive. I disagree, but only partially.

You see, I believe in the influence of the father. I love to drive – I drive more than 25,000 miles each year, am constantly looking at the AutoTrader app on my phone for my next car and believe that driving is the equivalent of freedom. I hope I am able to impart this love of the automobile into my daughter – but I recognize I am up against some strong headwinds.

Last year, the Fuels Institute published “Driver Demographics – The American Population’s Effect on Vehicle Travel and Fuel Demand." That report took at a look at nearly 100 years of driver evolution in the U.S., and the picture it paints does not bode well for my hopes that my daughter will embrace the freedom of the car.

Source: Fuels Institute “Driver Demographics”, Federal Highway Administration

You see, since 1982 the number of individuals who actually possess a driver’s license between the ages of 20 and 39 has been declining. Furthermore, since 1992 those in their 40s have started reducing their licensing rates. I don’t get it, but the data does not lie. There has been a consistent trend for the past couple decades of more and more people choosing to not drive.

I look at some of the twenty-somethings I know today. Several did not get their licenses until they were in their 20s, some still don’t drive. This is a foreign concept to me – I was at the DMV on my 16th birthday. There was not holding me back, but it is simply not as important as it once was. One argument is that technology has enabled social interactions without requiring close proximity – in other words, there is no reason to go anywhere to see your friends. Maybe, but regardless the enabler the facts are indisputable.

As we look into the future, will our children be able to travel from point A to point B without driving? Will autonomous features really replace placing our hands at 10:00 and 2:00 on the steering wheel?

I do not question whether our children will be more likely to trust a computer with their lives than we are – what we view as new and revolutionary today will be viewed as blasé by the time they reach “driving” age. That said, I am not convinced that autonomous technology will advance to such a degree that it will be ubiquitous by the time my daughter is a teenager. There remain significant hurdles, not the least of which are regulatory in nature.

However, a soon-to-be released report by the Fuels Institute leads me to believe that ride sharing and on-demand car driving services will have sufficiently expanded their reach to seriously diminish the need for her to personally drive herself around.

I have 14 years to work on my daughter and to induce within her a love affair with the automobile. I can only hope that when she is 16 she will still “want” to drive herself – otherwise, I will have considered myself a car-enthusiast failure of a father.

Read more from the February Issue of our Fuel for Thought newsletter.