PARIS – When they reach their 60s, young French adults today likely will own cars at about half the rate of those who are now in their 60s.
Today, 90% of households in their 60s here own a car, but the BIPE management consultancy expects only 50% ownership when today’s young adults reach that age.
Researchers and representatives from French organizations interested in the future of mobility recently testified before the French National Assembly’s Office for Evaluating Scientific and Technological Choices, presenting their ideas on how the government can best prepare for the future of individual transportation.
The implications of the hearing weigh heavily on the auto makers.
BIPE Vice President Eric Champarnaud warns that young people’s disinterest in car ownership in France is exceeded only by their Japanese counterparts. “The young generation is not interested in the product,” he says.
Elisabeth Gouvernal, who studies urban life for a French institute, adds more evidence: In 1983, about 35% of 18- and 19-year-olds held a driver’s license, but in 2010 only 19% did. Of all segments of the population, only retirees are driving more now than earlier generations.
“People are looking at mobility differently,” she says, “and the auto makers have to take note of that.”
Peugeot Citroen spokesman Claude-Jean Couderc contends young people still dream of car ownership, citing the steady sales increases of and Mercedes-Benz as an example.
Gabriel Plassat of the French research institution ADEME agrees young people want a premium car, but they are puting off the purchase of one.
Resistance to private car ownership is strongest in urban France. Research by Dominique Overlot for the legislative committee indicates cars in the country’s suburban and rural areas are a necessity. Those areas represent 40% of the population of France but fully half of the kilometers driven countrywide.
“People without a car are handicapped,” he says, noting that with oil at current prices households spend about 7% of their income on their vehicle. At $200 or $300 a barrel, that could grow to 20%.
The Automobile Club Assn. in France reports that even though they drove less, car owners spent 1.2% more on gasoline and 4.4% more for diesel fuel in 2012 than the prior year.
The group calculates owners of gasoline-powered vehicles drove 8,751 km (5,438 miles) in 2012, 271 km (168 miles) less than prior-year, while diesel owners traveled 15,368 km (9,550 miles), 108 km (67 miles) less than in 2011.
Prices for fuel, insurance, registration and maintenance all rose more than the inflation rate of 2% last year, the association says.
Overlot says hybrid vehicles are one answer to sustainable transportation in rural areas, as are car-sharing, car-pooling and extensive additions to bicycle trails that would let more students get to school safely.
Sharing cars instead of owning them is a growing trend in France that dovetails with younger generations’ changing attitude toward cars.
“Sharing cars is off to a strong start,” says Michel Couture, head of electric mobility at the French electric utility EDF. Autolib in Paris and Auto Bleue in Lyon are public systems that rent out EVs for short trips and provide dedicated parking places with rechargers installed.
“The No.1 reason people use Autolib or Auto Bleue is that they are sure to be able to park,” Couture says. In addition to those systems, some companies have EV fleets for use by employees, which is another form of car-sharing.
France Autopartage is an umbrella organization for 15 operators of car-sharing systems that use conventional vehicles, like Zipcar in the U.S. Some 14,000 members share 700 cars.
Yvon Roche, co-manager of the organization, says each vehicle in a car-sharing operation replaces eight privately owned cars and eliminates the need for nine parking places.
Young people especially have de-coupled car ownership and car use, says Nicolas Louvet, a researcher at PREDIT, a national transportation research laboratory.
Blablacar is a car-pooling service in which people find drivers or passengers to share rides. About one-third of the 600,000 customers who use the service in a year are drivers who announce they are going somewhere, one-third are passengers looking for a driver and one-third are people ready to drive or ride with another.
“People do this to save money,” company spokeswoman Laure Wagner says.
Mark Tessier d’Orfeuil, president of the Ecological Vehicle Club, suggests new apartment buildings in France be required to set aside parking spaces for car-sharing.
Speakers representing cars powered by biofuels, liquefied propane-gas, hydrogen-fuel cell or batteries all argue for support for their methods of achieving sustainable transportation.
Deputy Denis Baupin of the Assembly and Sen. Fabienne Keller, co-conductors of the joint hearing, listen as the speakers complain EVs don’t have enough recharging points, hydrogen needs research investment and LPG is struggling.
LPG sells for €3.42/L ($3.42/gallon), far less than gasoline at €1.60/L ($6.08/gallon) or diesel at €1.40/L ($5.32/gallon), says Joel Pedessac, president of CFPB, a LPG distributorship in France.
“We have 1,500 stations, representing an investment of €200 million ($264 million),” he says. “They are being used at a rate of only 5%-6%, and the network is still not profitable.”
Pedessac asks the government to keep LPG in its planning and that it raise the diesel-fuel tax, saying that would make LPG more attractive to consumers.
The pressure on auto makers is clear. Car sales are falling and the technical solutions to reducing fuel consumption are expensive.
Emerging markets are expanding rapidly and their young people still dream of car ownership, but that too will end one day, sociologist Bruno Marzloff says. So while cars will remain for a long time, government should prepare to help auto makers handle a gloomy future.
“Everybody agrees there is a problem of jobs,” he says. “The question is, how can we manage the decline? Transportation services won’t absorb it all.”