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Encore: Automakers Work To Lure Generation Z


There are lots of names for the generation that follows millennials - ReGen, Plurals, iGen, Gen Z. Their oldest members are just starting college. They have lots of buying power in the billions. As Youth Radio's Natalie Bettendorf reports, this generation's habits are different, especially when it comes to transportation and the age of ride-sharing.

NATALIE BETTENDORF, BYLINE: Sheryl Connelly has a crazy job. She's in charge of looking into the future for Ford Motor Company. They're trying to predict how people my age - from Generation Z - will use cars.

SHERYL CONNELLY: I have two Gen Zers at home.

BETTENDORF: She's in Detroit.

CONNELLY: My 16-year-old daughter is thrilled, actually. Her car is ready to go.

BETTENDORF: Yeah, that's definitely not me.

CONNELLY: Well, I think it's context. It depends on where you live.

BETTENDORF: A couple of decades ago, you would not have heard someone from Ford saying that owning a car is about context. Things are definitely changing. I'm 18, and I don't want a car. I'm from the Bay Area. I take buses. And when I need a car, I use Lyft. Ford's Connelly says Gen Z is a game changer.

CONNELLY: They don't really care about ownership. They don't necessarily see that their vehicle is going to be a status symbol. In fact, they're really savvy customers and quite - can be quite frugal.

BETTENDORF: Does this scare you at Ford - that we're frugal?

CONNELLY: No, I don't think so at all. We're ready for you. If you want to buy a car, we got it for you. If you don't want to buy a car, we can still help you there.

BETTENDORF: The top three automakers in the United States are Ford, Fiat Chrysler and General Motors. They say they are no longer just automakers. Every major car company is trying to make a move - whether it's car-sharing or ride-hailing or self-driving. Even General Motors has a new app for car sharing that it's betting billions on. It's called Maven, and Peter Kosak is the executive director of Urban Mobility.

PETER KOSAK: We needed to create a new brand because this is really about access and not necessarily ownership.

BETTENDORF: Ownership? Well, whatever. Me and people my age are redefining what it means to travel by car. Susan Shaheen is at UC Berkeley and has been studying ride sharing since the '90s before it was a real thing. She says this isn't all bad news for car companies.

SUSAN SHAHEEN: They're going to know you. If you are using their mobility services, chances are they're going to have a lot of data about your preferences. They're going to know a lot about where you travel and how you travel. They're going to be in a very good position to market to you.

BETTENDORF: Even if you haven't thought about owning a car, car companies have already kind of got you. Car-sharing apps essentially place you on the road to ownership. And using these services is essentially test driving, which is the first step in purchasing a car. I recently came to Los Angeles for college. Before I moved, I told people that I wouldn't have a car. And they'd say, oh, good luck. But I didn't need luck because I got here, and there's Lyft, and there's Uber. And right now, for people who are selling cars, I'm a problem. So is the rest of my generation. That is what is sending car companies into their own identity crisis.

For NPR News, I'm Natalie Bettendorf.

(SOUNDBITE OF LETTUCE'S "PHYLLIS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Natalie Bettendorf