Some young people shun driving because it interferes with their texting, said Michael Sivak, research professor at the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute.
Christian Kerr, a junior at Long Beach Polytechnic High School in Long Beach who does not drive, said, "Generally I tend to socialize through social media — Facebook — and text messaging."
Christian spends time with his friends at school and at track practice.
"On the weekends, I bike or I carpool," he said. "Getting a license just isn't a priority."
Allison, a student at Northwood High School in Irvine, recently watched the hit movie "The Avengers" on a 52-inch Samsung 3-D television at home rather than hitting a multiplex. When she goes out with friends, they walk to the local shopping center and have lunch.
The trend holds for older teens. In 1983, 69% of 17-year-olds had licenses, compared with 46% in 2010; for 18-year-olds, the percentage declined from 80% in 1983 to 61% in 2010.
"I know a lot of people who are waiting until they are 18," said 18-year-old Cat Blumberg, who hopes to pass her driver's test this month. "If I had a job, I would feel more motivated to get my license."
For the last two years, the Los Alamitos High School senior has been carted around by her parents, friends with licenses and even her 16-year-old brother, Johnny, who did get his license.
Parents have mixed feelings about teens' lack of driving ambition.
"It's scary to see your child get behind the wheel," said Kim Blumberg, Cat's mother. "But it will be a good thing for her. She is getting older; she will need to find a job and get that freedom and independence."
The sooner the better for automakers, who fret as young adults pick Apples over Altimas.
"The automakers are very worried," Zipcar's Griffith said.
Part of the auto industry's problem comes down to simple math. "A smartphone and the bill could be $100 a month. That's a good portion of a car payment," said Cristi Landy, Chevrolet's director of small-car marketing.
The auto industry could help itself by better integrating technology into its cars, Toyota's Hollis said.
"The auto industry has not pushed itself with technology and design at the same speed as the rest of society," he said. "You would be hard-pressed to say that any automotive company has out-innovated its competition."
But fun-to-drive cars with dynamic styling can capture young buyers, Hollis said. Toyota kept that in mind when it redesigned its flagship Camry sedan, he said. Now 12% of Camry buyers are younger than 29, up from 7% for the previous model.
Ford Motor Co. is trying to recapture young buyers on college campuses by subsidizing rental rates for its vehicles available through car-sharing services such as Zipcar.
"Once these students have been exposed to Ford products, they will be more likely to consider buying them," said Sheryl Connelly, Ford's manager of global trends and futuring.
Chevrolet is marketing to younger buyers by focusing on their shifting priorities, Landy said. "In the past, it was all about horsepower and torque, and now it is about technology, connecting to smartphones and fuel efficiency."
Chevy's Spark and Sonic small cars offer MyLink radio, which enables drivers to purchase a $50 BringGo smartphone app to display a navigation program and traffic updates. The system mimics an embedded navigation system — at a fraction of the cost — and also syncs with other apps such as Pandora and Stitcher music services.
Chevrolet also is working on a "mirror link" feature that would display any app deemed safe for driving on a dashboard screen.
All of this will help. But what the automakers really need, Griffith said, is "an iPhone with wheels."