Betting on the runners-and-riders of mobility

As car and ride sharing initiatives of the kind popularised by Uber grow in popularity, many drivers are now turning their backs on traditional car ownership.  So, what are the pros and cons of alternative modes of mobility?  To what extent is in-car connectivity and technology a driving force behind such innovative mobility services?  And how can established car makers get involved in this burgeoning sector?

Current modes of alternative mobility

Alternative modes of mobility such as car sharing, car pooling and ride sharing offer people a variety of flexible mobility options without the need to incur the often high costs related to personal vehicle ownership, such as vehicle cost and upkeep, insurance and parking.  According to Bryan Reimer, research scientist at the MIT AgeLab and associate director at the New England University Transportation Center, these benefits are clearest for urban low-mile drivers, who he believes can enjoy “significant cost advantages” by accessing different vehicles based upon their specific needs, for example, larger or smaller cars when carrying more or less passengers.  At present, ride sharing services, of the type offered by global behemoth Uber, are proving to be the most successful.  For Reimer, this is largely down to a number factors, including the simplicity of access via a smartphone app, the high availability of providers and the convenience of on-demand kerbside pickup.

Meanwhile, Susan Shaheen, co-director of the Institute of Transportation Studies' Transportation Sustainability Research Center (TSRC) at the University of California (UC), Berkeley, points out that a number of environmental, social and transportation-related benefits of shared-mobility modes have also been reported with several studies documenting reduced vehicle usage, ownership, emissions and distance travelled.

“Shared mobility can also extend the catchment area of public transit, potentially helping to bridge gaps in existing transportation networks and encouraging multimodality by addressing the first-and-last-mile issue related to public transit access,” she says.

Niche markets

As well as improving access and providing cost savings and increased economic activity near public transit stations and multimodal hubs, Shaheen believes that shared mobility modes also offer carmakers the opportunity “to expand into new niche markets and diversify their business”.  In particular, she points to a number of programmes that have already been launched by car companies seeking to muscle in on the market including GM's Maven, Daimler's car2go and BMW's ReachNow scheme as well as partnerships between carmakers and existing ride sharing platforms, such as GM's investment in Lyft and the large purchase agreement between Uber and Daimler.

“Continuing to explore innovative technologies and new ways of how automobiles can be used will provide key opportunities for OEMs in the future, for example, through electrification, automation, sharing and the convergence of each of these trends into new products or services offered by OEMs,” she adds.

Reimer also points to the added opportunities that could potentially be available to carmakers engaging in such programs or partnerships, specifically the benefits that could accrue by maintaining ownership of the fleet, such as the flexibility to provide better maintenance, decrease lifecycle costs and earn a premium on the service while, simultaneously, facilitating the more efficient sharing of resources.

Elsewhere, David Miller, chief security officer at Covisint highlights some further opportunities for carmakers and service providers through competing or partnering with innovative start-ups.

“The start-ups in this case will most likely provide the technology that is used to manage the service.  The provision of the vehicle is a very capital intensive endeavour and would be hard for a start-up to manage.  I think the best partnership would be an OEM, a rental company and an Uber like cloud software company,” he says.

"I think for most of these models the challenge will be for the provider of the service and not necessarily the OEM.  Car sharing can be compared to the current car rental business, the rental agency has all the regulatory challenges and the OEM just sells them the car.  I believe that we will see car rental companies playing in the car sharing area much more than the OEMs," he adds.

Joining the dots

Looking ahead, Reimer reveals that automation is the current 'space race' for the industry and is likely to be the key trend over the next few years.  

“Several new providers are likely to demonstrate select pilots for fully automated mobility services in the next few years.  The major question will become the speed of more general deployment to follow,” he says.

Meanwhile, Shaheen predicts that, over the next five years, key developments “will focus on mobile technologies and improving digital multi-modal integration through smartphone apps, more advanced application programming interfaces (APIs), and data sharing between the public and private sector”.

Miller agrees that connected vehicle technology is a “foundational requirement” for all alternative mobility models, with the ability for drivers to securely hold and transfer their own account details and preferences likely to emerge as an essential requirement for future initiatives to be successful.

“In addition, the ability to securely lock, unlock and start the shared vehicle using a soft security key as opposed to an actual key will be required if these models are going to scale,” he adds.

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