It used to be simple being a car manufacturer: develop new cars, give them to dealerships and start all over again. It's a very different landscape in 2017. Increasingly congested cities, the rising cost of ownership and more viable alternatives for getting to A to B means buying a car is no longer a rite of passage for young people. As a result, big manufacturers are getting into the business of "mobility services" that focus on moving people without necessarily selling them a car. Within the GM ranks, that push has led to the creation of Maven.
New Atlas spoke with Deric Harwood, head of Maven in Chicago about the growth of ride sharing, and how it is helping develop autonomous cars.
Compared to car sharing services like ZipCar, Maven is still very young. Launched in Ann Arbor during January 2016, the service is now online in more than 17 American cities, and users have racked up over 50 million miles in its cars. The full spectrum of General Motors brands is on offer, although the range of cars changes from city-to-city. After all, GMC four-wheel drives with ski racks on the roof are unlikely to win many fans in Atlanta.
Whenever we write about car sharing, there's a real focus on young users. Buying a car is a big commitment, and many city-dwelling millennials don't see the need (or can't afford) to spend money on parking, insurance, gas and maintenance for a vehicle they might only drive once a month. Maven aims to appeal to this crowd with a model low on commitment.
"One of the great things Maven has is that there's no membership fee, you're not committed to it," Harwood says. "You sign up for it and use it as you please... [which] attracts people who may not normally want to give something like this a try."
"Seventy-five percent of our member base in Chicago are millennials," he continues. "Chicago is a very young town, and you have a lot of these people in the [millennial] age group who get jobs in Chicago. They're moving to Chicago and they can't afford to have a car payment and an insurance payment and a garage fee payment. Forget it!"
The benefits of a setup like this are twofold for General Motors. For one, it gets to earn money from people who can't afford to buy a car, and puts itself at front-and-square in their minds when the time comes to invest in wheels of their own. There's no better way of showing off your product than letting people drive, play with and properly experience it.
"We hear a lot of electronic feedback from our members that they're just really impressed with the fit and finish of these vehicles," Harwood says. "That's actually another one of the benefits. This gets people and, who knows what their opinion of General Motors may be, but they get into these vehicles and they drive, they ride and they say 'wow, these are really something else!'"
App-driven car sharing also is a goldmine of information about how regular city drivers use their cars. As the race to develop self-driving cars gets more competitive and brands look to expand their EV infrastructure, information like this is absolutely invaluable.
"Not only are we reaching this whole new customer base and offering a whole new solution, half of this is that we're creating awesome insider information as we plan to launch more mobility solutions in these cities," adds Stefan Cross, who works in the GM communications department, and listened in on our interview. "We're realizing at an aggregate level what vehicles people are using, where they're going, what the trends are on traffic patterns and all this information is very useful."
"We've said before, the first iteration of autonomous driving is not going to be personally owned vehicles," Cross continues. "It's going to be ride sharing vehicles, or car sharing vehicles. It's going to be vehicles you call on an on-demand basis, and that would be a natural extension of Maven."
Although the potential upside of Maven could be huge for General Motors, success isn't guaranteed in the current market. Anyone who's tried to master an open-relationship will know the setup's greatest perk is also its greatest downfall: without any commitment, it's easy to walk off and try something else. Interestingly enough, Harwood doesn't have a solid answer as to how Maven will prevent users waltzing off to a younger, more attractive sharing service when they're tired of GM.
"I think what's going to happen is, people may try each of them out and see which one fits their needs the best," Harwood muses. "For Maven, one of the easiest barriers of entry overcome is that there's no cost of membership, there's no commitment so you can try it out and see if you like it ... I think that each program will have its own pros and cons, and I think it will come down to the individual style."
In Maven's case, that individual style is all about offering a consistent General Motors experience across the whole fleet. Whether it'll be enough remains to be seen, but Harwood is confident the service will continue to grow, both as a replacement and as a supplement for car ownership.
"We see [Maven] as continuing to grow because in the urban markets, the cost of owning a vehicle is going to continue to be enough of a barrier to people wanting to buy a car, so they'll continue to use our vehicles," he says. "But also, we see it as not just an alternative, but as a supplement. Maybe you own a smaller vehicle and want to go away for the weekend. You have an opportunity to get into one of our bigger vehicles that can take the whole family and the equipment you need."