Final Inspection

Getting ‘The Kids’ Interested in Cars

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Nissan’s plan to hook future customers involves online gaming and a “batmobile” race car.

When I was 16 years old, getting a drivers license was practically a rite of passage. It meant a lot to be able to drive a car. Not anymore. Today, many young people are not at all interested in cars. They don’t even aspire to own one. Instead, they are passionately devoted to their smartphones and iPads, as passionate as an earlier generation was to their flat heads and small blocks.

This poses a grave threat to the automotive industry. Auto makers around the world are justifiably concerned that they’re losing a generation of future customers.

Many auto makers are struggling with how to change this mindset, but I especially like the approach Nissan is taking. It developed a couple of clever programs designed to get “the kids” interested in cars again. And so far it’s worked better than anyone could have imagined.

Nissan is focusing its efforts on motor racing, but doing it in a way that differs from anyone else. First, it started what it calls the GT Academy, which embraces online gaming, in this case with Sony PlayStations.

The GT Academy is a racing game that allows anyone online to compete with other “drivers.” They race virtual cars at virtual race tracks, but the skills honed online very much work in the real world. So far, three graduates from the GT Academy in Europe and the U.S. have racked up impressive performances in real race cars at real race tracks.

Most people think Nissan is using the GT Academy to develop new racing talent. But the world already has plenty of racecar drivers.

The real reason is to get a younger generation interested in cars again. Simon Sproule, the head of communications for Nissan worldwide, says more than 1 million young people have competed in the GT Academy. That’s a lot potential car enthusiasts.

The second prong in Nissan’s youth movement revolves around its involvement with the Delta Wing race car that competed in this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans. It’s a revolutionary design that has half the weight, half the aerodynamic drag, needs half the horsepower and consumes half the amount of fuel than other typical race cars.

Because it is so revolutionary, the organizers at the 24 hours of Le Mans only allowed it to compete from Box 56, which is reserved for cars that show unique technological potential.

To a lot of young people, the Delta Wing looks something like the Batmobile. That, and its amazing efficiency, makes it cool. Cool enough that, as it practiced and qualified for the race, all the videos and pictures of the car went viral. That irritated just about everyone else at this year’s race. Audi, Toyota, Chevrolet, Ferrari, Aston Martin and Porsche were dismayed to see the Delta Wing hogging half the media coverage before the 24 Hours even began. Worse, from their point of view, is that Nissan invested a fraction of what they did to field their race teams.

The point of all this is that the GT Academy and the Delta Wing are proving that a new generation can absolutely be lured into loving cars again, as long as it is done in a way that embraces the way they play, and wows them with cool technology. It can be done.

However, one caveat. Nissan is doing a terrific job of kindling a love of cars among young men. Now it needs to figure out how to do the same thing with young women.

 John McElroy is editorial director of Blue Sky Productions and producer of “Autoline” for WTVS-Channel 56, Detroit, and “Autoline Daily,” the online video newscast.

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