Carmakers push toward mobility as a service

Jim Lynch
The Detroit News

Traverse City — Automakers are changing from their core mission of selling cars, to selling rides from here to there.

Both General Motors Co. and BMW are pushing into the mobility-as-a-service sector. Maven, which is GM’s mobility platform, debuted 18 months ago and now operates in 17 U.S. cities. BMW’s ReachNow is a 16-month-old “free-floating car-sharing” service available in three cities.

Representatives from both Maven and ReachNow spoke Tuesday to industry officials at the Center for Automotive Research’s Management Briefing Seminars in Traverse City about the implications of their services for their parent companies.

While falling under the umbrellas of traditional automakers, both Maven and ReachNow are indicators of the new directions that old companies may have to embrace. The “two cars in every garage” business model is poised for replacement by customers who may forgo ownership in favor of renting cars for individual trips.

Valerie Sathe Brugeman, senior project manager at the Center for Automotive Research, described the change as a revolution, not an evolution. “Auto companies are starting to redefine themselves as mobility companies,” she said.

Rachel Bhattacharya, director of commercial mobility and autonomous vehicle fleet operations for GM’s urban-active operations, described Maven’s year-and-a-half of work as a “learning laboratory.” The platform makes vehicles available on-demand for traditional car-sharing via Maven City, small fleets for individual apartment buildings via Maven Home and vehicles for people looking to make a buck via Maven Gig.

With its fleet of Chevy Bolt EVs, Maven is providing its parent company with real-world data on everything from charging to fleet management. Each service targets people who may no longer see the value in committing to years of lease or loan payments — instead opting to go with service-on-demand.

“Right now, it’s more ancillary and we certainly have no doomsday scenarios that automotive is going away any time soon,” Bhattacharya said. “But we definitely see this as a required core capability in the future, not as a sideshow.”

ReachNow’s free-floating approach to car-sharing allows users in Seattle, Portland and Brooklyn to tailor usage to their needs of the moment. The fleet of BMWs and Minis are available for ride-sharing, car-sharing, long-term rentals and peer-to-peer sharing.

Steve Banfield, ReachNow’s CEO, highlighted the dilemma automakers like BMW face. He said the auto industry faces a dilemma similar to that of movie companies reacting to video streaming.

“A movie used to cost $30 on DVD or Blu-ray — now you get it for pennies as part of Netflix,” he said. “We’re doing the same thing. We’re taking $40,000 cars and making them available for 41 cents a minute. We just digitized this hunk of metal. And the sooner everybody gets their mind around that, the better off it will all be.

“But we’re not going to sop making cars or selling cars any time soon.”

Companies that fail to move toward mobility are doing themselves a disservice in the long run, said Samit Ghosh, president and CEO of P3 North America Inc., an automotive consulting and testing firm.

“You can take the position of ‘I can just continue doing what you have been doing successfully for 100 years,’ ” he said. “You will not have the capabilities to compete with what others are doing, so at some point you won’t be in a competitive position.”

Chris Thomas, founder of Fontinalis Partners, a venture capital firm that invests in automotive technology, was asked if automakers need to make the transition to mobility companies. He answered bluntly: “They already are, even if they don’t know it.”

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