“A Car for Every Purse and Purpose”
– Alfred Sloan, 1924
You’ve probably thought some version of this question in recent weeks.
We’re just one month into 2016 and General Motors has already made a bunch of really interesting and buzzworthy announcements. And I’m not talking about Chevy’s 2017 Bolt EV (which is surprising because it seems I’m always talking about the Bolt EV).
First, GM announced a $500 million investment in Lyft to build the rideshare company of the future — a network of on-demand, self-driving vehicles.
Since when does “sharing” fit into the business model?
The very next day, they announced that they were exploring a new mapping technology from Mobileye to leverage real-time data from OnStar to develop the maps and traffic data that will teach autonomous cars the rules of the road.
Then GM snatched up the remaining bits of rideshare startup Sidecar – along with its intellectual property, which is stirring up quite a bit of speculation. But the deal also included the addition of some key Sidecar staff. This paved the way for the big announcement of the month: Maven, GM’s new car-sharing service.
Launching in Ann Arbor, Mich. before anticipated extensions to Chicago, New York and other major U.S. metro areas later this year, Maven is like a cutting-edge tech startup embedded inside a major global automaker.
So this is a little weird, right? For so many decades, a car has been a very personal item. In some families, it represents a rite of passage. In others, it’s an important member of the family, or a mark of pride or luxury.
Investments in ridesharing, car sharing and self-driving, on-demand vehicles is a very sharp turn from this traditional view of what a car means. It’s not unreasonable to wonder if GM is innovating itself into obsolescence.
“GM is at the forefront of redefining the future of personal mobility,” GM President Dan Ammann said during the Maven announcement, and I think there’s a lot to that idea.
Economists and futurologists have written breathlessly about the future of transportation. Some projections don’t even include cars, while others don’t include car ownership the way we know it. There’s little common ground among these projections, except that how we get around in the future is going to be very, very different.
The sharing economy made disruption in other industries, like the taxi and hospitality sectors, feel like they happened overnight. But the auto industry is different. We’re watching the change happen, as if in slow motion, years and years in advance.
While we’ll be reliant on gas-powered, personally owned vehicles for the next 10 years or so, we won’t be for much longer than that. The question automakers need to ask themselves is whether they want to be a part of the next 10 years of transportation, or the next 100 years of transportation? Are they going to stick violently to what they already know, or make some scary moves outside of their comfort zones?
As this future approaches, carmakers aren’t the only ones who have to do some soul searching. A recent New York Times report indicated America’s cities are also not well prepared for fully autonomous driving. Then there’s the matter of public receptiveness. NPR, citing a study from the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute, said the public is sending a “mixed message,” generally expressing concerns about riding in a self-driving vehicle while also expressing a desire to own one.
Automotive executives have a lot of hard choices to make and a lot of proactive actions to take. But don’t you worry about GM. It’s already making those decisions and putting its stake in the ground.