Does the automobile industry have a future?

Some analysts say commuters turn to other transportation options, the auto industry could peak at about 100 million annual sales within the next decade, then fall into a permanent decline.

David Zalubowski/AP/File
A buyer moves between rows of Ram pickup trucks and Dart sedans at a Dodge dealership in Littleton, Colo. According to Detroit News, the auto industry has about a decade of growth left to it -- and then a permanent decline.

If you work in the auto industry, the good news is that the next ten years will be a bounteous decade for you and your peers. 

The bad news? After that, you might want to consider a career change.

According to Detroit News, several research firms believe that global auto sales will soon plateau, after which they'll go into permanent decline. How much further will they go? IHS Automotive estimates a top-end figure of around 100 million sales per year -- not too far above the 82 million vehicles sold in 2013. 

When will this happen? It's hard to say, but research suggests the turning point will come within the next decade. (Note: that's not "in a decade", but "within a decade".) This is unwelcome news for an auto industry that's hoping to ramp up sales to 120 million by 2016.

Then again, the estimates IHS and others shouldn't be that surprising. Car sales are on a roll now, but we've already seen plenty of indications that the future won't be as rosy. For example:

1) Young people are driving less.

2) In fact, all people are driving less.

3) Cars are lasting longer.

4) Urban populations are growing.


For most of the 20th century, cars meant freedom -- the freedom to move around town, to move around the country, to make some moves on your date at Lookout Point. (There's a reason cars and teens used to go so well together, before the internet changed everything.)

Now, we've begun to reach something approaching automotive saturation. Cars are so ubiquitous today that for many motorists, they've become a nuisance, a necessary evil, rather than a means of mobility. (If you've sat in Friday afternoon gridlock, you understand the irony of always linking cars with "mobility".) This is the case even in developing economies like India and China, the latter of which recently hosted the largest traffic jam in history.

To drive that point home, Detroit News cites PricewaterhouseCoopers' Tim Ryan: "The key question [for automakers] is: Do you sell cars or do you sell mobility? If you ignore these megatrends, you run the risk of becoming irrelevant." Point taken, we hope.

Before you start eulogizing the automobile, though, understand that personal transportation won't go away. For now, mass transit systems are still too unwieldy to take us everywhere we want to go, when we want to go, so personalized systems (e.g. cars, motorcycles, Segways, etc.) will remain. But there's little doubt that they'll become less necessary over time, as we enter the next great age of transportation. 


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