illustration of items in storage

General Motors’ car-sharing unit, Maven, is a part of the “sharing economy” trend, which includes ride-sharing services to renting out storage space in other people’s homes. (Illustrations by Leif Parsons)

Features | From Pivot Magazine

General mobility?

A storied automaker starts to change direction

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General Motors’ near-death experience in 2009 underscored the perils of ignoring shifting consumer preference until it’s too late—a hazard GM is now desperate to avoid as car-sharing services gain traction around the globe.  

The storied Detroit automaker earlier this year announced the expansion of its two-year-old Maven car-sharing unit to Toronto, the 17th North American city and first international location for the fledgling service. Like Zipcar, Car2Go and others, Maven offers city dwellers a compelling proposition: source a car on your phone, pick it up at a local parking lot and rent it by the hour. (Insurance is included, though there is a deductible.)  

There are also rumours, first reported by Bloomberg.com, that GM is exploring a peer-to-peer car-sharing service that would encourage owners to rent out their cars, trucks and SUVs when they’re not using them—a sort of Airbnb for vehicles—following in the footsteps of start-ups like San Francisco-based Turo. 

“GM has been on the more aggressive side,” says Michelle Krebs,   executive analyst for the online marketplace Autotrader.com, adding the industry is “on the cusp of major change” amid advances in self-driving technologies and electrified powertrains. “They created Maven to be the umbrella for all of these new kinds of mobility services.” 

Globally, an estimated 24 million people currently belong to a car-sharing program, a number predicted to grow by 20 per cent annually over the next four years. While that’s still a tiny fraction of the more than one billion cars on the world’s roads, there’s little arguing with the attractiveness of ride-sharing. Why pay thousands annually to finance, maintain and insure a vehicle that spends most of its useful life parked in a driveway or garage? 

Mark Latchford, Maven’s Toronto general manager, says GM hopes to differentiate itself in the increasingly crowded car-sharing market by offering higher-end vehicles—including SUVs—and a host of infotainment and connectivity features meant to appeal to tech-savvy urbanites, who, studies show, are increasingly likely to forgo car ownership. “You don’t have to worry about getting a membership or a key—it’s just your phone,”  

Latchford says, noting Maven signed up more than 4,000 users in Toronto during its first 60 days. “That’s the key to everything.” 

While Latchford says he’s not aware of plans for a peer-to-peer service, he’s quick to acknowledge that Maven functions as a laboratory where the 100-year-old company can test new ideas and learn about everything from fleet management to mobile payments: “Using Maven’s insights, data and experiences is kind of preparing General Motors for the future.” 

Ultimately, the question for GM is whether it can make enough money through car-sharing and other mobility services to offset any impact the trend has on its bread-and-butter business of building automobiles. Lawrence Burns, a University of Michigan professor and a former GM vice-president of R&D, wrote last fall in Autonomous Vehicle Engineering magazine that an automaker’s average net income per vehicle ranges between US$1,000 and $5,000, whereas a self-driving transportation service vehicle with a 300,000-mile life can earn about $30,000. 

But there’s a caveat: GM’s historical strength is automotive design,  engineering and manufacturing at scale, not customer service. That element of the business is currently handled—some would say not very well—by the carmaker’s vast network of independent dealers. Adopting a more consumer-oriented approach like Apple, Google or Uber will require a brand new skill set, not to mention a major culture shift.  

“There’s certainly a risk if they don’t do it well,” Krebs says. “But there’s probably an even bigger risk if they don’t do it at all.” 

It’s like airbnb for…

Say “sharing economy” and people immediately think Zipcar or Airbnb, which, incidentally, earned $100 million last year by charging fees for renting out space in strangers’ homes. But rides and rooms are far from the only services being swapped. From mouldy basements to empty restaurant tables, here are some other examples of the what’s-mine-is-yours economy at work.

Storage

illustration of miscellaneous items with 'for rent' signSpacer, an Australian firm that bought San Francisco space-sharing pioneer Roost last year, makes it possible for anyone with an empty basement, garage or attic to cash in on America’s US$30-billion self-storage business. How lucrative is it to store someone else’s junk? An empty garage fetches about US$400 a month.

Stuff

illustration of miscellaneous items with 'for rent' signWhy not a sharing site for all those things in your basement you’ve bought, and only use occasionally? The founders of Fat Lama had the idea when they were renovating in East London, U.K., and found it hard to rent ladders, tools and the like. Users can rent things they might expect—a camera, a ski rack, camping equipment—and things they might not—a little black cocktail dress, running shoes, a didgeridoo.

Bathrooms

illustration of washroomAn idea long overdue, Rockaloo lets you use your smartphone to book nearby private washrooms in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens. Prices range from US$0.99 to $8.99 for up to one hour. You simply walk in the door—they’re typically bars, restaurants and coffee shops—show your phone to the proprietor and proceed to be relieved.

Tables

illustration of people in restaurant, one dining other working Coffee shops no longer have a monopoly on laptop-toting freelancers and entrepreneurs. Now restaurants and bars in New York can rent out their dining areas to the self-employed between the lunch and dinner rush via KettleSpace, launched last summer. Users pay between US$25 for 10 hours a month and $99 for an all-access pass. Free WiFi and bottomless  coffee are included.

Luggage

illustration of people in restaurant, one dining other working The next time you’re dragging a suitcase through London while waiting to check into a hotel, try calling up LuggageHero on your smartphone. The service connects burdened travellers with local businesses like convenience store Jimmy & Sons near Covent Garden, which charges about $5 per hour per bag to store your luggage. Best of all, it’s insured against loss and affixed with a tamper-proof seal.