General Motors today announced plans that will position the company to “capitalize on the future of personal mobility,” using its OnStar network (“nearly two decades of connectivity leadership”) and by “owning the customer relationship beyond the vehicle.” Given what GM announced (car sharing services with autonomous vehicles), “owning the customer relationship” means that GM isn’t willing to cede that relationship to other car sharing services like ZipCar or Uber.
The press release lays out several technologies, but let’s focus on two aspects – Autonomous Driving, and Car Sharing. Especially since a companion press release discussed a car sharing program, Let’s Drive NYC, owned by GM that just launched in New York City.
GM started a car sharing program with Google last year in a commute sharing program using Chevy Spark EV’s. Using an “app”, drivers and riders were matched up based on schedule and locations. In Europe, GM’s Opel brand launched a peer-peer car sharing service called CarUnity using car dealer fleets to provide vehicles for the program. In China, a fleet of EN-V 2.0 electric concept vehicles went into service at Jiao Tong University in Shanghai as part of a multi-modal campus transportation system alongside bicycles, cars and shuttle buses.
All these programs are presented in the press release as prototype concepts from which GM learned more about the car sharing business.
The Let’s Drive NYC program is available to eligible residents of The Ritz Plaza, a 479-unit luxury apartment building at Times Square in midtown Manhattan. Residents use a GM-developed mobile app to reserve a vehicle and access parking in one of 200 garages throughout Manhattan. The fleet currently includes eight Chevrolet Trax small SUVs and two Chevrolet Equinox compact SUVs, with more vehicles to be added later. Fees for three hours of accessing these cars are bundled into their lease, with usage beyond that amount costing less than $10 an hour or up to $75 for a 24-hour reservation. In other words, this is a tiny pilot program aimed at rich people in one apartment building.
OnStar is one key to this, according to the press release, because it automatically provides remote diagnostics and a help desk available with the push of a button.
Autonomous driving vehicles (self driving cars) will clearly be a part of future car sharing efforts from GM, even if it’s a separate item today. The press release describes a program where autonomous driving 2017 Chevy Volts will be available for employee use at the Warren Technical Center campus. GM employees will reserve vehicles using a car sharing app, select a destination, and the car takes care of the rest. This will serve as a testing ground so GM’s engineers can accelerate self-driving car technology in real world conditions.
RoboTaxi’s from GM and other car makers
Combine these two technologies and what do you get?
A fully self-driving autonomous vehicle could navigate itself around a city waiting to be paged by someone using a smart phone app. Once paged, the autonomous vehicle would drive itself to that person, take them to their destination, easy peasey.
It’d be an Uber-like service without having to hire humans (and their need for retirement, health care, days off, etc) to drive the cars.
GM isn’t the only company to be announcing, or hinting at, services like this. The list includes at least Daimler, Nissan, Volkswagen, Ford, and Tesla Motors.
At the moment neither GM nor the technology are ready to implement the vision. Most of the car companies are developing the underlying technology, and year-by-year the elements of fully autonomous driving are being implemented in cars. For example the 2016 Hyundai Sonata Plug-in Hybrid contains a cruise control that automatically maintains a safe following distance behind the car ahead, rather than blindly maintaining a set speed. GM’s press release discussed a “Super Cruise” autonomous driving technology that will be available in the 2017 Cadillac CT6.
We should see these technologies as baby steps towards an interesting vision of the future. Several car companies have openly discussed this list of ideas:
- Demographic shift underway to live in walkable urban environments
- Couple that shift with eschewing car ownership, and relying on car sharing or transit systems
- Rising population means the existing car system will be overwhelmed with grid lock making individual car ownership less attractive
- Autonomous driving technology is rapidly improving, and will become viable in a few years
- Electric vehicles with effective wireless charging would fit naturally, and are becoming more available
The future is rapidly approaching. What had been science fiction is finally becoming real. With luck these technologies will change some attributes of urban transportation to decrease the environmental footprint while serving a larger number of people.
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