Not your parents' car: How the automotive industry is wooing Gen Z
Targeting the so-called car-averse Gen Z, the automotive sector is using innovative design and technology to forge new connections with young people.
The Future Laboratory / L:SN Global, micro trends, 2023 (link)
Drivers: what’s happening
Millennials were famously known as the go-nowhere generation, reluctant to get in their vehicles, but they changed their mind. In 2020, they bought more new cars than any other age group, according to The New York Times. Now it’s Gen Z’s turn. Car-makers and industry-watchers say it is only a matter of time before consumers born after 1995 enter car ownership.
In 2020 in the US, only 25% of 16-year-olds and 45% of 17-year-olds held a driving licence (source: Federal Highway Administration). But according to data analytics and consumer credit firm Experian, Gen Z’s interest in automotive and vehicle ownership is showing significant signs of growth as they age. Most recently, they accounted for 7.2% of all new US car registrations in the first three quarters of 2022, according to Experian, an increase from Q3 2021, when they accounted for just 5.6%.
For Gen Z, who are concerned about climate change and facing rising living costs, purchasing a car may be out of reach. From car prices to vehicle storage solutions and credit and insurance premiums, there are many obstacles in their way. But the recent shift towards electrification and new technologies allows car brands to tap into young people's techie lifestyles and trendy aesthetics. Now is the time for them to showcase their most future-forward and thrilling concepts to grow brand awareness among Gen Z until the latter have the financial means to become customers.
‘Whoever excels at integrating the customer’s everyday digital worlds into the vehicle at all levels will succeed in mastering the future of car-building ’
— Frank Weber, development chief, BMW
Case studies: what’s new
In addition to targeting teenage motorcyclists with the BMW CE 02 motorbike-scooter hybrid, BMW is exploring new ways to connect their cars with digitally native consumers. The i Vision Dee – for Digital Emotional Experience – is a phygital concept car. The vehicle is enriched with reactive and ‘emotional’ technologies that connect with telemetry, spatial soundscapes, projected graphics and AR.
LIke a video game virtual car, the i Vision Dee is highly personalisable. The exterior is coated in 32-colour E Ink, which can be programmed to create patterns, change colour and react to various car controls and triggers. Predicting that our relationship with AI and connected objects will strengthen in the next few years, BMW gave the i Vision Dee a ‘digital soul’. This dystopian in-car AI can express moods and has advanced language understanding.
Mini’s next youth-driven era is embodied by the Concept Aceman, a debut crossover deliberately designed for Gen Z and, one might argue, Gen Alpha. The vehicle features soft and immersive aesthetics, not unlike what you might find in Gen Z’s bedrooms. To move away from big screens, an unobtrusive infotainment system is projected onto the dashboard and door panels, transporting the occupants in a dream via a multi-sensory experience. The driver can also project personal images and digitally decorate the interior with the aesthetic of their choice.
Building on Gen Z’s love of personalised services, occupants can use the internal computer to explore curated points of interest around them from three categories: Tasty (food and beverage), Adventures (leisure-centric) and Trending (active events). Like Bentley Motors, Mini is considering how sound design can entice young drivers. Curated sounds like waves breaking on the shore or glittering water moving in a swimming pool will adapt to the projection.
Hoping to capture the attention of younger consumers, Cupra looked to video game styling and aesthetics to create the UrbanRebel Concept, a small electric vehicle based on its parent company Volkswagen’s entry-level car. With an extreme wing, dynamic shape and vivid rainbow paint, the UrbanRebel sets new standards.
The design team specifically created this car to appeal to Gen Z gamers, claiming they wanted to show younger consumers that, despite most vehicles on the road appearing conservative, the future of Cupra’s physical cars could emulate the emotion, thrill and excitement found in gaming.
‘The design team was inspired by Generation Z, a highly gamified generation. If you’re planning a visionary project, you have to factor in the mindset of the people who will enjoy it ’ — JorgeDíez, design director, Cupra
Analysis: what this means
While the current environment might not entice young buyers, car brands can work on establishing a rapport with driving-age consumers. Manufacturers should build on traditional branding pipelines such as appearing in video games and media or collaborating with other industries; for example, with Lego drops, capsule collections with fashion designers and lifestyle brands. They should also capitalise on the aspirational appeal of a concept car that genuinely speaks to Gen Z’s world.
Gen Z and Gen Alpha don’t want their parents’ cars. They aren’t as easily impressed by modern-day cars’ simplicity and analogue appeal as their older peers. Perhaps the research and development invested in Lunar Landers will ignite new tools and options that will match the demands of younger car purchasers.
Young consumers will feel more at home in the industry as the language surrounding personal vehicles changes from the mainstream polluting engine to new beginnings in electrified mobility, technology, personalisation and connectivity.
‘The moment [Gen Z] no longer live in a college campus or one of the handfuls of places where they don’t have to have a car, they will purchase one. The US is an auto-centric country, and if you don’t have one, you’ll be left behind ’
— Kelcie Ralph,an urban planning professor at Rutgers University
: Concept vehicles aimed at Gen Z often feature relatable aesthetics or technology, such as AI and personalisation. How can your brand showcase its vision for the future by taking cues from what Gen Z consider to be familiar?
: Car-makers are betting that Gen Z don’t want a car resembling that of their parents. How can you disrupt tradition to target new clients without confusing your primary age clientele?
: The future appeal of the automobile will ultimately be underpinned by a climate change-positive narrative. Brands can’t get too caught up in technology and aesthetics as Gen Z will demand all three