General Motors is launching a car-sharing program. It’s called Maven, it’s available in exactly one city, and, frankly, it’s an unexciting riff on ZipCar. But GM isn’t really competing with ZipCar. It’s placing a bet on the future.
The Detroit automaker’s done a lot of that this month. It introduced the Chevy Bolt, the first mass-market electric car. It bought the remains of Sidecar, the defunct Uber competitor, to strip it for parts. It’s working with Mobileye to develop maps for robo-cars. It’s working with Lyft to build a network of driverless vehicles.
And now Maven, which the company announced Wednesday. At first glance, you might consider this an odd move. Maven is available only in Ann Arbor, Michigan—though GM plans to move into other cities soon—and it doesn’t offer the convenience of Uber or Lyft. Oh sure, there’s money to be made in car-sharing, as ZipCar and others have shown. But it’s small potatoes for a company like GM. It isn’t until you take the long view that this move makes sense. Maven can be the foundation for the self-driving car network GM wants to build.
The classic “owner-driver” model that has been the cornerstone of the auto industry for a century won’t disappearing anytime soon, but the industry is in the midst of radical change. GM claims some 5 million people worldwide use vehicle sharing services like Uber, and that number is expected to hit 25 million by 2020. That emerging industry will be completely remade by autonomous vehicles, and GM is trying to position itself for that change now. “We feel that we are very well-positioned as a company to be at the very forefront of this change in ownership model, change in mobility, particularly in the urban environment,” says GM President Dan Ammann.
Maven is key to how GM is addressing that shift. At first, it will be available to students and faculty at the University of Michigan’s Ann Arbor campus. Chevrolet vehicles—Volts, Sparks, Malibus, and Tahoes—will fill 21 parking spots. Users can reserve cars through the Maven app, and use their phone to unlock and start the vehicle. The cars will support Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, so users can tote their digital lives with them into whatever car they rent. It’s a “truly personalized experience,” says Julia Steyn, GM’s head of urban mobility programs. “You can take your life with you.” The program is free to join and charges as little as $6 an hour to use a car, which includes insurance and gas.
GM’s not the only one experimenting with new business models. Ford, among other experiments, is trying peer-to-peer car sharing for its employees, and will soon let up to six people jointly lease its cars. BMW ran a car sharing program in the Bay Area until November of last year, and Daimler’s Car2Go service operates in dozens of cities throughout the US and Europe. In November, Audi launched a premium car sharing service in San Francisco and Miami.
In the next few months, GM plans to expand Maven to other cities TBD. Its existing mobility services, including car sharing programs in New York City and Germany, will be folded into the new program. Maven will offer services tailored to users in cities, on campuses, and residences like co-ops. “We see it as a real commercial opportunity,” Ammann says.
There are lots of ways for this new program to expand: geographically, with more cars, with more types of cars, by trying new pricing schemes, and by bringing in new customers. For now, all that is distinct from GM’s autonomous vehicle research and its partnership with Lyft. But that gulf will eventually close. GM wants to launch a ride-hailing network using autonomous vehicles. Maven can be the foundation for that sort of service, with ready-made groups of users, neatly arranged by geography and how they like to travel, already using a GM service.
“We’re putting in place all the building blocks,” Ammann says. “This is all part of a very comprehensive approach.”