Howes: Mobility ‘gold rush’ disrupts auto expectations

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

Romulus — The two-day meeting at the Westin Detroit Metropolitan Airport, opened Wednesday, is officially called the “World Mobility Leadership Forum.”

Maybe they should have dubbed it “Welcome to the Gold Rush.” That’s because the race in the mobility space really is a mad scramble to gain competitive advantage — and to make a whole lot of money — in the business of ride-sharing and self-driving vehicles.

The free-for-all pits the traditional automakers and suppliers defining this town against Silicon Valley heavyweights, innovative start-ups, even government regulators. It’s also forging cooperative relationships because neither the hard manufacturers nor the software sharpies alone possess the technology, the know-how or the resources to go it alone.

“We’re going to have everything questioned and many things turned upside down,” says Jose Viegas, secretary-general of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s International Transportation Forum. “We just don’t know which. Companies are quicker and smarter than governments in knowing what is changing.”

The markers are mind-boggling. The move into mobility is expected to transform the $3 trillion-a year global auto industry into a $10 trillion global transportation services industry, the makings of a 21st-century gold rush this business hasn’t seen since the days of Henry Ford.

Lyft Inc., the San Francisco-based ride-sharing firm, estimates 50 percent of its rides will be performed by autonomous vehicles within five years. It says private car ownership in big cities will be a thing of the past by 2025 (less than 10 years from now).

It says the familiar model of owning, insuring, fueling, maintaining and parking our own vehicles will go from private hands to ride-sharing companies, first in the nation’s largest cities. Talk about a paradigm shift.

That could radically reshape everything from the auto and finance industries to insurance, health care, even public transportation. It could increase access to inexpensive transportation for the poor, the elderly, children too young to drive. And it could effectively increase disposable income when people choose ride-sharing over the larger expense of private cars.

“It will no longer make financial sense for people to own cars,” predicts Emily Castor, Lyft’s director of transportation policy. No wonder Lyft sees the coming shift as “the third transportation revolution.”

The transition will have serious implications for the winners; for the losers who could see trillions in value migrate to other sectors; for the automakers and suppliers whose design and engineering, manufacturing and sales, still define Michigan and its largest city.

“It’s all just different,” says Doug Rothwell, CEO of Business Leaders for Michigan, organizer of the mobility forum convened by Ford Motor Co.’s executive chairman, Bill Ford Jr. “You’re still going to need all these individual vehicles. It’s just who’s going to drive them.

“I have to think there’s great potential for growth. If half what they say is true, it’d be the biggest change in our lifetimes” outside the telecommunications revolution enabling the software of ride-sharing, self-driving cars and so much more.

Want to know why General Motors Co. pumped $500 million into Lyft. Or Ford Motor Co. created a Ford Smart Mobility LLC? Or Toyota Motor Corp. now is billing itself as a “mobility company” with its own Collaborative Safety Research Center?

Two reasons: to be part of, instead of spectators to, a transformation that promises profound implications for the traditional auto industry, its employment base, its market capitalization and its standing with investors. And, second, to compete for the gold.

In theory, the steps into mobility should be natural progressions for global automakers. They have the scale. They operate globally, tailoring solutions to regional needs. They have massive repositories of customer contacts and preferences.

Lyft provided 1 million rides in 2013, its first full year of existence. This year, it’s averaging 14 million rides a month, annualized to 168 million rides a year — and Lyft’s smaller than Uber Technologies Inc., the industry heavyweight.

The average vehicle today is in use just 4 percent of the time. The other 96 percent of the time, it sits. And depreciates. And still must be insured. And serviced. And cleaned. And stored. And financed.

What if the likes of Lyft or Uber or a subsidiary of Ford wrapped all that cost into a captive fleet of electric vehicles, developed a smartphone app and sold the service by subscription — kind of like Verizon sells phone plans? No way? Think again.

Yes, the likes of GM, Ford and the rest of their rivals will continue to reap the bulk of sales and profits from the traditional car and truck business. But the coming mobility shift is an opportunity they cannot afford to miss, and that’s why they aren’t ignoring it.

(313) 222-2106

Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, listen to his Saturday podcasts, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.