The way automakers earn the bulk of their revenue has remained the same for more than a century: Customers step into dealerships once every few years and buy a new car. Now that automakers are branching into offering mobility services, however, the companies realize that their business model needs to be reconfigured to chase fickle consumers who, rather than signing new purchase or lease agreements every few years, are able to choose among various transportation options every single day.
“All that has to happen tomorrow morning is that people wake up and don’t come,” said Rachel Bhattacharya, chief growth officer at Maven, the car-sharing brand that’s one of General Motors’ principal players in the new mobility realm. “That’s all that has to happen, and the company is dead. When you are in the services business, it’s a completely different animal. Every day, someone has to wake up and choose you. You live and die by that.”
One way Maven strives to keep customers in its vehicles is by having cars available in as many markets as are profitable. To that end, the car-sharing brand launched service in Toronto early in February, opening its first location outside the United States. At the outset, Maven will have 40 vehicles available in the city, some of which start at hourly rates as low as the equivalent of U.S. $7.25.
One way that Maven differentiates itself from competitors such as Zipcar is by offering a portfolio of vehicles that range in size from the subcompact Chevrolet Spark to the Cadillac Escalade luxury SUV. Customers can tailor the vehicle they borrow to the outing they’re undertaking.
With Toronto operational, Maven has spread to 16 markets across North America. Since its inception in January 2016, the brand has served some 114,000 customers, who have driven a collective 243 million miles. Those numbers are a microscopic sliver of the miles compiled on personally owned GM vehicles, but the company’s aggressive promotion and prioritizing of Maven shows a readiness to prepare for a future that will be less reliant on ownership.
General Motors says that each shared car removes approximately 10 private cars from the road, and that’s consistent with findings from a 2016 study conducted by researchers at the University of California at Berkeley. Their study of the effects of Car2Go, the world’s largest car-sharing company, found that members sold between one and three personal vehicles for each one available in the company’s fleet. Further, they said, between four and nine new-vehicle acquisitions were suppressed. Overall, that meant between seven and 11 vehicles were removed from the road across the study cities for each car-sharing vehicle available.
“When you are in the services business, it’s a completely different animal. Every day, someone has to wake
up and choose you.”
– Rachel Bhattacharya, Maven
Subverting new-car sales may have once been heresy at a company like General Motors, but in a press release announcing the Toronto expansion, GM makes a bold statement: “Thanks to Maven, car ownership in Toronto is no longer necessary.”
By strategically choosing to locate near other transportation options, such as bus depots and train stations, Maven says its service functions as one cog among multiple options and that, by maintaining careful oversight of its fleet, it can attract customers.
“We have more points of control over our business. We control fleet size, fleet composition, and where it’s parked, and that gives us a lot more ability to influence that customer experience than, I think, a pure platform company would have,” Bhattacharya said. “There are actually advantages to owning and deploying your own fleet and making those decisions on your own.”
If Toronto helps GM further its car-sharing aims, then Maven’s arrival furthers Toronto’s efforts to cast itself as a city eager to experiment with mobility options.
Google’s Sidewalks Labs subsidiary has announced plans to transform a section of Toronto’s waterfront into a hub for urban innovation that includes “a mobility system that is safer and more convenient than the private car at much lower cost.” The city is also one of 20 finalists in the race to land Amazon’s second headquarters and the only one located outside the United States. In its request for proposals, Amazon noted that factors in its decision would include traffic congestion and the ability to offer a range of transportation options.
Even as Toronto touts visions of a better transportation future, it is grappling with some of the realities today. Start with the finite number of parking spaces for both car-sharing vehicles and privately owned ones. In January, city council members expressed concern that a Car2Go pilot project would take away too many parking spots in Toronto’s residential areas and balked at issuing the necessary permits to the company, which is a subsidiary of Daimler. In turn, Car2Go has been so incensed by the holdup that it has threatened to stop operating in Toronto, according to a CBC news report.
There’s an important difference in the ways that Maven and Car2Go function. Maven contracts for dedicated parking spots in both public and private garages and lots, whereas Car2Go relies on a “free floating” business model in which customers can park the cars anywhere on public streets within designated zones; they don’t need to be returned to a base location.
But the broader implications of the parking squabble in Toronto remain thorny for car-sharing operations. While government clamors about the perils of a car-centric culture, aiming to reduce traffic congestion and offer more mobility choices, in practice the city council’s reluctance here delivers a mixed message. If one thing is clear, it’s that car companies like Daimler and General Motors, through their car-sharing brands, are willing to shed the traditions and revenues associated with private car ownership and forge a new path.