To continue the theme of car sharing from my previous article, Paris has recently launched the Autolib car share programme and hopes to expand the fleet to 3,000  vehicles by the end of this year. The cars are 100% electric with a range of 160 miles and have apparently been designed by Pininfarina. They still look like a dogs dinner to me but thats not the point. On top of the scheme just started in San Diego, Brussels also has its own scheme called Zen Car. 

The difference here is that Autolib is a public private partnership. The private part being funded by French super tycoon entrepreneur man Vincent Bollore, who according to EuroNews has invested €1 billion!  

Update: Have had some very interesting comments on this article and my previous article on car sharing more generally on Linkedin industry groups. Most have agreed that car sharing could be a big deal in the future, however its implementation so far has been not been good. With regard to Autolib Paris some have suggested that political connections could have had more to do with the scheme than the merit of the car. Certainly the range is quite impressive however the Pininfarina design looks like it was done by an intern not one of the Ferrari designers and the Renault Twizzy, would have been a much better match. What do you think?

Thoughtful and imaginative approach from Renault. Is this the first time someone has actually marketed an EV properly? 

Car sharing schemes - savior of the electric car?

Despite increased activity and interest in electric cars by activists, politicians, scientists and finally manufacturers, sales of electric cars remain slow. An article in today’s Sunday Times by Dominic Tobin and John Arlidge states that just 21 new electric cars were sold in Britain last month! Now that is a low amount of cars no matter how you frame it (even if it is one more than Feb 2011).  

This is obviously a concern given the large amounts of R&D some automakers have dedicated to these projects. One solution according the authors is to make loss making electric vehicles available through car sharing clubs. This they say will mean “manufacturers can reduce the overall carbon dioxide emissions from the cars they make, and thus keep the EU regulators at bay”.

  Below:Mercedes Car2go has been rolled out in France, Germany and the USA


The two big manufacturers that already have car sharing schemes of the kind discussed in the article are Daimler (Car2go) and BMW (DriveNow). Daimler is currently the only one using electric vehicles. The schemes basically allow people to hire cars for short periods of time, pay-by-the-minute and and drop off in any municipal bay. This is all facilitated by a smart phone and a chip installed in a members driving licence. Simple.

So could these schemes be the key to the future of urban mobility? According to the Sunday Times, Mercedes claims 70,000 members and BMW 16,000, whilst world wide membership of urban car clubs tripled between 2006 - 2010 to reach 1.2 million members. Also consider the fact that 80% of under 25’s in Tokyo, one of the worlds biggest consumer markets, don’t own a car (and I am sure you would find similar patterns in other major cities) and you can begin to see the structural issues. These days having a car in a city can be a massive hassle and looking after a tonne of metal in a crowded environment with limited space is stressful.

So perhaps the reason for slow electric car sales does not only come from their  lack of range (largely perceived and not relevant in a city) and high price point. It could be the way in which we perceive car ownership that no longer fits with many people’s actual lifestyles.

Car sharing does of course come with its own problems for OEMs, who I’m sure would rather sell a car to 10 individuals rather than 1 car for 10 to share. But looking at it from the other direction, this could just be a great way to access a lot of people who would otherwise not have bought a car at all. 

It is in a sense shame that regulation seems to be running ahead of demand for clean vehicles (although this matches historical precedent many aspects of the automotive sector). However, these kinds of solutions could be vital to providing sustainability in the EV market, both to take up demand side slack in the interim and structurally over the longer term. Changing business models as well as perceptions is the next step.  

Some interesting related articles 

The in-car infotainment conundrum

As we saw at Geneva and CES this year OEMs are coming up with ever more ingenious ways to link you to your car. Slick in-dash touch screens, voice and even gesture controlled systems that can connect with your smart phone, link you with Facebook and download new apps are all part of the exciting new wave of in-car infotainment. They represent the new generation of in-car information systems and a leap forwards from the JVC unit I had in my first first car that could only receive 3 radio stations and play 1 jammed CD.

Now some have questioned the safety of all this techology. This Wired article cites a study carried out by MIT that looks into how a driver’s concentration is affected when forced to multitask. Their findings suggest that human concentration is not binary, but much better characterised as shades of grey. So this opens up the discussion, how much is too much?


                                      Above:Probably too much

The study claims that hands free technologies might not be the silver bullet that automakers and policy makers had hoped for.  According to study author Bryan Reimer, “hands-free technology does not make driving and technology safe. It can make it even more problematic when people perceive they’re doing something that’s safer” and that the real issue is how much ‘cognitive demand’ should be placed on the driver. 

OK so before you shoot the horses, this study is intended as an aid to help create safer in-car systems and does not recommend an out right ban on them. Reimer warns that “drivers don’t know their own limits” and suggests one possible solution could be “technology that would alert the operator they’re functioning in an area where they’re really not capable” (others have suggested removing all but the simplest functions all together). 

An interesting thought though, especially as a 2009 study by the Virginia Transportation Institute found dialing a phone made the likelihood of a crash almost three times higher if you’re driving a car and almost six times higher in a truck. Texting in a truck makes you almost 24 times more likely to have an accident. Yeesh.

On top of this analysts at ABI research have found that profits in the infotainment sector are actually set to decline. According to ABI’s 2010 research report profits in the sector are set to fall to $24.8 Billion by 2015 from a high of $29.5 Billion in 2010. Research director Larry Fisher attributes this to “pressure from the aftermarket, and from free or low-cost applications available via smartphone handsets, which will drive down ASPs for GPS/navigation systems so severely that, while the number of vehicles equipped with such systems will double worldwide over the forecast period, revenues for those systems will decline by two-thirds”. 

The good news from this is that loss in revenue will largely be confined to in-vehicle navigation and that some of these loses will be offset by growth in the rest of the infotainment sector. In fact Mr. Fisher reports that excluding GPS/NAV services the sector will actually experience a healthy 20% growth over their forecast period. 

Above: GM Gogo navigation app streams from drivers iPhone or Android device.

With people choosing cheaper after market navigations (such as Tom Tom and Garmin) or using their smart phones (as this commentator does) one OEM choosing to make the most out of this shift in navigation use is GM.  They are  exploiting  their customers’ penchant for smart phones to increase their sales of not only infotainment systems but navigation software too. Their solution revolves around their latest MyLink unit which allows drivers to connect their smart devices and control them through a 7” touch screen with voice command. Users simply need to download the $50 Gogo Navigation App for their phone and they will be able to stream the navigation through the MyLink system. Not only are their obvious safety benefits from using a 7” centrally mounted screen compared to a small after market device but the low cost and integrated nature of the package should entice new buyers into the market.

Indeed automotive infotainment is now flourishing thanks to standards that prolong obsolescence, which in turn is drawing in third party developers eager to write software with a potential sales base of millions of drivers. This holds the promise of licensing revenue and on-going service revenue from these innovations.

Serendipitously the report ends somewhere near where we started, warning that sustaining revenue might be a bit like trying to nail jelly to the wall. This is because consumers are often reluctant to pay for something they might easily be able to get for free. Meanwhile the looming threat of safety legislation hovers over the industry amid concerns of driver distraction. For example this study by the The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (USA) proposes that traditional real time navigation should be done away with and replaced by systems that update every 4 seconds.

Despite these concerns I can say with certainty that all of these new ergonomic and streamlined systems are safer and much less infuriating to use than my old JVC. However, like never before manufacturers have more to worry about in this field. The potential for these technologies to enhance the driving experience is large as long as safety is ensured and revenue can be harnessed. A change is upon us and coping with it will certainly require a little lateral thinking. 

For some interesting comment and extra information on this topic;

New Li-Ion Batteries Promise Less Cost, More Range

New Li-Ion Batteries Promise Less Cost, More Range