Jeff McMahon , Contributor From Chicago, I write about green technology, energy, environment. Opinions expressed by Forbes Contributors are their own. A woman reaches inside the trunk of a Daimler AG Smart ForTwo Car2Go car-sharing automobile on a ...
Jeff McMahon , Contributor From Chicago, I write about green technology, energy, environment. Opinions expressed by Forbes Contributors are their own.
A woman reaches inside the trunk of a Daimler AG Smart ForTwo Car2Go car-sharing automobile on a street in the Williamsburg neighborhood in the Brooklyn borough of New York, U.S., on Saturday, Feb. 25, 2017. Automakers are pushing into so-called mobility services like car-sharing and ride-hailing to counter alternatives to private vehicle ownership. Photographer: Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg
Autonomous vehicles could be a blessing for society if they are electric and shared, a disaster if gasoline-powered and individually owned.
In the blessing scenario, carbon emissions plummet, traffic lightens, accidents and fatalities disappear, and vast expanses of roadway and parking space open to reuse. In the disaster scenario, emissions increase, gridlock strangles cities, people become more obese and diseased as their robot cars do everything for them.
Car-sharing companies can make sure the blessing comes to pass and not the disaster, experts say, by acquainting consumers with the benefits of sharing even before cars go fully autonomous.
"Car sharing is really the mode that allows us to make the transition to automation," said Adam Cohen of the Transportation Sustainability Research Center at UC Berkeley. "We can’t go from zero to sixty. We need something that allows people to transition out of private vehicles. We need something that allows developers to reduce their parking before we get to a zero-parking scenario, if that is where we’re going.”
But industry leaders fear this vital role for car sharing is not understood, particularly by city governments that have a stake in making sure the blessing scenario prevails over the disaster scenario.
"There's an assumption that we're going to go from driving cars to autonomous vehicles," said Pam Cooley, executive director of the Carshare Association. "There's no sort of practical understanding that we have to first, actually, get over this thing about driving our own cars."
At the National Shared Mobility Summit in Chicago last week, Cooley lamented that there weren't more city officials talking about car sharing or attending the car sharing panel she hosted. "Why isn't this room full of city officials going, 'We want you to come to our city!'"
Some cities are making that appeal, according to Josh Moskowitz of Car2Go, which offers Mercedes and Smart Cars that are free floating, meaning members do not have to return the cars to their point of origin.
"I think the conversations with cities have to start now," Moskowitz said. "I think you can leverage car sharing and all the benefits that we bring to the city along with this idea that in the future, autonomous vehicles will be the end game for what car sharing currently is. We create a package. It’s a suite of benefits to a city. This is something we’ve started to explore with certain cities who are interested in AV pilots, talking about free floating car sharing as the precursor program or precursor service."
The car sharing industry is young—generally recognized as having been launched by ZipCar in 2000—and has occasionally conflicted with the powerful lobby of the rental car industry. Car sharing needs a lobby that's equally powerful, said Thomas Cole of ReachNow, BMW's car sharing service.
"We need to get on that kind of par to have this voice," Cole said at the summit. "I'd love to see this room as full (of city officials) as the insurance room was this morning. We've really got a good message to tell and we're just not doing a good job of telling it, unfortunately."
Car sharing in its present form is like Netflix when Netflix was mailing DVDs, added Alex Thibault of Vulog, a French company that provides a platform and equipment to companies that want to embark on car sharing.
"When they launched they called their company Netflix, but they were shipping DVDs in the mail, building up a user base knowing full well they were going to come to a time when you would stream the thing sitting on your couch." In Thibault's analogy, streaming videos are to Netflix as autonomy is to car sharing. But car sharing is still in the DVD phase.
"You would have liked to have founded Netflix, right? It’s a really good trajectory that you know. The only difference is it’s much more capital intensive to put cars on the road than it is to buy a DVD. It’s a different kind of investment."
Cooley has a precise definition of car sharing: members have access to a fleet of vehicles owned and maintained by someone else, which they use as needed, paying for the time and mileage that they drive. That definition distinguishes car sharing from ride sharing models like Uber and Lyft, in which private vehicle owners offer rides to others who need them.
But in the autonomous future, the distinction between those modes will disappear along with human drivers, said Aric Ohana of Envoy, a company that provides car sharing systems to real estate developers to offer as a residential amenity.
"I completely agree car sharing is definitely the pathway to autonomous vehicles, but so is ride sharing as well. I think they’re going to run parallel together in a lot of ways and provide a lot of the data we need to drive this future," Ohana said.
"What I think car sharing does in the interim is it gives people options not to own vehicles, and I think that’s the number one reason that car sharing is even an industry, right? We’re taking vehicles out of people’s hands and we’re giving them a vehicle to share amongst their neighbors and community members."
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