Thoughts From the NY International Auto Show

The end of the appeal of owning things - maybe.

April 1, 2018

This weekend my wife and I took our college-age daughters to the New York International Auto Show. In truth, we had not planned to attend the giant car extravaganza held annually at the Javits Center. We had planned a weekend in Manhattan as a spring break getaway, and ended up at the car show largely by happenstance.

There is some degree of irony in my attendance at any auto show. Our oldest drove away with our second car at the start of her sophomore year.  My wife drives our family (and only) car to work. Most days, I don’t drive anything bigger than an electric bicycle.

So there I was at one of the world’s biggest car shows with no automobile of my own, and no desire to ever own a car again.

The ability to have two jobs in a one car family is certainly a privilege. One that I’m grateful for each day. And yes, there are many times when not owning a second car is a pain.  In most ways, however, relying on public transportation, intercity bus service, and Amtrak is liberating.

Cars are expensive and dangerous. Nowhere at the NY International Auto Show was there any mention of the approximately 40,000 U.S. vehicle deaths in 2017.  

Many of us don’t want cars, but transportation. 

The depressing lack of robust public transportation in much of the U.S. makes the choice to limit the number of cars in the household difficult for many.  Uber can get very expensive very quickly if that is your only option.

Given the option to forgo auto ownership, however, many would make that choice.

(Bloggers note:  The argument that American’s want to replace car ownership with cars as a service does not seem to be supported by the data.  According to Statista, over 17 million cars and light trucks were sold in the U.S. in 2017. This is up from 10.4 million in 2009 during the depths of the housing bust led Great Recession).  

As I wandered around the NY International Auto Show with my family, I keep wondering if we were witnessing the beginning of the end of American car culture.

Would fleets of commoditized autonomous vehicles replace personal car ownership in my life?  In my kids' lives?

My overwhelming reaction to all of the gleaming exotic cars and everyday commuters assembled at the Javits Center was a desire to never own any of it. The annual auto show may or may not be part of the last gasps of an economy built on stuff.

Cars are expensive physical things. More and more, we want experiences and we want services. If we can get experiences and services without ownership, then we will.

The idea that our image or our status is somehow tied up into the car that own seems like a throwback to an earlier era.

I would say that the decline of appeal of stuff - if this is a real thing - is a good thing for some colleges and universities. Higher education is the ultimate experiential good.

Spending a few hours at the big NYC auto show is good fun. But the car show represents a world that no longer holds much appeal.

What else in our culture may change as software, sensors, networks, robotics, and algorithms enable us to move owning to using?

Will we look back on our infatuation with car ownership much like we remember the world of horses, wagons, and stage coaches?

If one’s image can no longer be created by the purchase of an automobile, how will status distinctions in the future be maintained and enforced?

Have you given up any cars in your household?

How are you moving away from ownership to services?

How can we explain the simultaneous rise of Uber with all those new cars being sold?

Are you also a fan of auto shows, but not automobiles?



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