Toronto Star

Tech that changes nature of car ownership

Smartphone capabiliti­es, transporta­tion alternativ­es give drivers other options


Ongoing advances in technology are one of the key factors driving new car and truck sales to record levels.

These days, even a three-year-old vehicle can be technologi­cally obsolete in terms of the latest features and gadgets.

But could that relentless progressio­n of technology ultimately render the concept of vehicle ownership obsolete?

Recent trends and developmen­ts suggest that’s a very real possibilit­y.

According to the most-recent annual figures available (for 2014), 77.8 per cent of driving-age individual­s in Canada own at least one vehicle and the average Canadian household includes 1.5 vehicles. For many, if not most, it’s not just a matter of choice; it’s a necessity.

But that situation is changing. For one thing, the gen-X and millennial generation­s, which have surpassed baby boomers as the biggest buying group ever, typically display more passion for their smartphone­s and related devices than they do for cars.

At the same time, the technology enabling those devices, along with other social factors, is making car ownership less and less necessary.

Those other factors include a global migration of people into densely populated cities, where simply getting around by car is becoming increasing­ly difficult.

Social and political pressures within those areas, such as restricted access, inadequate parking provisions and prohibitiv­e tolls, further discourage car use.

Concurrent­ly, alternativ­es to car ownership are expanding at a frantic rate — not just additional mass-transit options, but access to private transport on an as-needed basis through car-sharing services, such as Car2Go, or ride-hailing services like Uber. Thomas Beermann, CEO of car2go Europe, summed the situation up concisely, speaking at a recent TUAutomoti­ve Europe conference in Munich on the future of the automobile.

“People still like cars, people still like to drive cars, but not all people still want to have the asset with all the obligation­s linked to it,” he explains.

Car2go, a subsidiary of Daimler AG, is just one of several car-sharing services owned by automakers themselves. Several more have invested in or are affiliated with ride-hailing services.

General Motors, for example, has launched its own car-sharing program called Maven (in Canada, with a pilot program in Kitchener, Ont.). The company has also invested in Uber competitor Lyft (not yet in Canada) and partnered with Uber itself, covering all those bases.

Other alternativ­es gaining favour, especially in the U.S., include real- time ride sharing.

Unlike ride-hailing services, which are, in effect, just taxi services, realtime ride sharing matches potential riders with drivers who are already going to the same or a nearby destinatio­n.

The enabling keys to all these services are smartphone­s and their associated apps, social networks and GPS navigation devices. The net result of their adoption, extrapolat­ed to the next level, inevitably will be a reduction in the number of private vehicles needed.

While the number of car trips taken, at least within a city, may not be reduced, the number of cars required to take them definitely will be, for each vehicle will be in near continuous use, rather than parked for most of its life. Consequent­ly, fewer vehicles will be needed to transport the same number of people the same total distances.

That’s why many, if not most, auto- makers are now talking about becoming “mobility providers” rather than just car manufactur­ers. The concept is not new. As far back as 2001, Dr. Wolfgang Reitzle, then head of Ford’s shortlived Premier Automotive Group, pitched the concept of selling not just cars, but mobility packages.

As an example, he suggested, a customer could drive a choice of any of the company’s vehicles within the paid-for model range on 24-hour notice anywhere in the world.

Ford didn’t follow through on the idea back then, but arch-competitor GM has done so recently through its Cadillac division — at least on a trial basis.

Cadillac’s new Book service, available in New York City, is a $1,500per-month subscripti­on to a choice of cars — like subscribin­g to Netflix or a software service, rather than buying a movie or the software itself.

All associated fees, including insur- ance, are included and requests for a specific model can be made via a smartphone app. The car will be delivered to the customer, and exchanged when required, by a concierge service.

Asimilar approach is being pursued by a new Chinese brand, called LYNK & CO, owned by Volvo’s parent company, Geely Auto Group, which is expected to arrive in North America in 2018.

It promises to offer, “New solutions for car usage and access . . . from traditiona­l ownership and leasing to subscripti­on and sharing-membership . . . online or in stores in strategic retail locations.”

Beyond all those options is the near-future prospect of fully autonomous, driverless cars that you’ll be able to hail from your smartphone and use as your own, whenever and wherever.

At which point, will there really be any reason to own a car?

 ?? TORONTO STAR FILE PHOTO ?? Car2go, a subsidiary of Daimler AG, is one of several car-sharing services owned by an automaker. Others are affiliated with ride-hailing services.
TORONTO STAR FILE PHOTO Car2go, a subsidiary of Daimler AG, is one of several car-sharing services owned by an automaker. Others are affiliated with ride-hailing services.

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