Ideas of shared mobility only truly work if you remove the paid driver
As you may have read in our online coverage of the LA motor show, visitors to the Volvo stand on the press day of the event did not find any Volvos to look at. Weird, but there you go: Volvo would like to talk to show visitors about things other than new metal, as it reimagines the future of the car company.
It isn’t alone. Volvo’s one-time owner, Ford, is dead into the idea of recreating itself as a mobility provider, having set up a car share scheme in London a few years ago, and rolling out Chariot, its ridesharing (read: bus route) scheme.
I get the vibe that, in addition to the core focus of making cars people want, there’s a lot of this kind of chin-stroking, naval-gazing activity going on inside car companies.
It almost reminds me of the time in the 1990s when big companies absorbed smaller suppliers, credit providers and aftermarket service agents, as they attempted to rationalise the industry – ‘let us be your one-stop car shop’ – before they reverted to the business of making cars when it didn’t work out.
This time, though, there are stronger motivations. Companies aren’t just absorbing others because there are boom times and they see a way of taking over the world. This time there’s fear. Fear that, in future, people won’t want to own cars the way we do now. Fear that we won’t even want to learn to drive. Fear that cities might just switch off access to cars to improve the air. And in a way there’s the biggest fear of all: if, someday, a car can drive itself, why own one at all? Just call for one.
They would all like to be the provider of such a service, and there’s the allure of data to help them do it: it has never been easier to know where and when people are going, because devices are creating mountains of data. Those who can analyse it best will respond best.
But in a world without autonomy, the biggest cost of hired transport is always the person at the wheel. Without the human element, what we now know as taxis would become extremely cheap – and indeed most of these ideas of shared mobility, or shared cars, only truly work if you remove the paid driver. Otherwise, you’ve still effectively got a bus service, taxi service or car rental service, just with a new name and a more efficient data set, but still with the overbearing cost of sending somebody with a vehicle to where you are, and from where you end up.
So until autonomy makes it to the real world, the biggest outlay in any hired service – the human behind the wheel – undermines such a business, and still makes owning a car, even one that spends 90% of its time going nowhere, cheaper and more convenient than having one on-call.
Question is when, or whether, that day will arrive, or whether the shared future looks as empty as a show stand with no cars on it.
Browsing car news online this week, I came across an Australian financial newspaper with a list of Christmas gift ideas, at the top of which was a KTM Duke motorcycle. Cripes. If only. However, if you are in the midst of Christmas shopping, and you do some of it via Amazon, search Amazon Smile, which will see 0.5% of the net price got to a charity you nominate. I’ve gone for our charity partner Mission Motorsport.
Human beings tend to complicate every good business idea
KTM Duke: not available on Amazon