Is the love affair between cars and young people starting to cool?
That could be the case, according to a new study of auto-related online commentary among teens and young adults by J.D. Power and Associates.
The market research firm analyzed hundreds of thousands of online conversations held from January to August on auto-related websites such as Autoblog, on personal blogs and on social networks such as Twitter and Facebook.
The goal was to gauge the perceptions of Generation Y (those born in the 1980s and early 1990s) toward the automotive industry in general as well as toward specific vehicle brands. The analysis focused on "teens" (ages 12 to 18) and "early careerists" (22 to 29).
According to J.D. Power, "online discussions by teens indicate shifts in perceptions regarding the necessity of and desire to have cars."
American teenagers without a set of wheels? James Dean, who drove a '49 Mercury to fame in the 1955 movie "Rebel Without a Cause," must be spinning in his grave.
Part of the reason could be economic, the study said. During the worst recession since the 1930s, the cost of owning a car probably makes less sense than it did when gas was 30 cents a gallon and every red-blooded American teenager yearned for a Chevy Camaro or a Pontiac GTO.
"Also, with the advent of social media and other forms of electronic communities, teens perceive less of a need to physically congregate, and less of a need for a mode of transportation," the study said.
That can't be good news for the auto industry.
"The negative perceptions of the automotive industry that teens and early careerists hold could have implications on future vehicle sales," Chance Parker, vice president and general manager of J.D. Power's Web Intelligence division, said in a news release.
"Generation Y could have the greatest spending power of any generation -- even surpassing that of the baby boomers," Parker said. "It will be essential for automakers to earn the trust and loyalty of Gen-Y consumers, who are particularly critical of brands and products."
In Japan, the first major developed country to experience a decline in car ownership, lack of interest among young people in owning cars -- especially in urban areas such as Tokyo -- is cited as one of the factors behind "demotorization."
The trend is already having a serious effect on the Japanese auto industry, and it poses a threat to car-dependent businesses such as restaurants and stores that are not near public transportation lines.
Of course, there's always China.
J.D. Power's Michael Dunne told USA Today a few months ago that China's 1.3 billion people "are simply wild about cars." In January, monthly auto sales in China surpassed those in the U.S. for the first time.
U.S., Japanese and other automakers increasingly have been looking to China for sales growth, although the nation is also rapidly developing its own stable of car companies.