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GM Trumps Ford

GM Trumps Ford
by Roger C. Lanctot on 08-26-2016 at 7:00 am

 I strongly recommend giving a listen to John McElroy’s panel discussion podcast featuring Julia Steyn (pictured on the right, above), vice president of urban mobility and Maven for General Motors along with John Voelcker of Green Car Reports and Rebecca Lindland of Kelley Blue Book. Steyn offered up a mountain of substance regarding GM’s plans and GM’s thinking about the new, emerging world of transportation as a service.

“Autoline: GM’s Mobility Maneuvers” –

Steyn addressed the potential impact on vehicle sales (positive) and the role of GM dealers while laying out the strategy for bringing transportation to urban populations in a more flexible manner, better suited to changing consumer behavior. One comment stands out in particular among Steyn’s statements: “We closely work with mayors and municipalities to understand their needs.”

This single statement captures the reality that GM “gets it.” New forms of vehicle usage and ownership or non-ownership are emerging and cities are on the front lines of this change. Steyn and GM understand this shift, recognizing that it isn’t enough to stick some cars on the street or in various parking garages for ad hoc transportation needs. It’s best to work with cities to understand the existing transportation landscape and how car companies and their products might help overcome challenges.

This newly minted urban intuition likely arrived with the acquisition of the personnel and assets of now-defunct SideCar. SideCar executives will have understood and conveyed to GM that the battle for share in the ride hailing and car sharing business is a city-by-city proposition. Credit GM with listening.

Cities needs vary reflecting the geography, demography and existing transportation infrastructure. The needs of a Las Vegas differ widely from the needs of Los Angeles and those needs vary even within the cities themselves.

Steyn’s sober assessment of the nature of the need and GM’s approach to meeting that need contrasts with Ford’s plans announced last week to commence mass production of autonomous cars by 2021. In fact, it was while listening to Ford CEO Mark Fields announce Ford’s plans at a press conference last week that my thoughts turned to Steyn’s comments.

The mass production of autonomous vehicles – with no steering wheels or brake or gas pedals, in Fields’ words – raised immediate questions as to what entities will be buying these vehicles. According to separate comments from senior Ford leadership such cars will not be made available to consumers by Ford until 2025.

The Ford announcement raises a host of unanswered questions regarding where and how such vehicles will be sold, deployed and used. The demand side of the proposition is never addressed. Will consumers want cars that drive themselves? And if they do, will it make sense for consumers to own them?

It should not have been this way. Rather than simply making the bold statement that Ford will mass produce autonomous vehicles, Fields ought to have situated the announcement more carefully within the framework of the company’s history and vision of mass vehicle-based transportation – expressed on multiple occasions by Executive Chairman Bill Ford. Autonomous vehicles will introduce and expand social mobility.

Ford was first to democratize vehicle-based transportation. It is only natural that Ford pioneer the next phase of transportation technology. The introduction of autonomous vehicles by Ford ought to have been positioned as extending the democratization represented by the Model T – opening up individual, convenient, low-cost vehicle-based transportation to financially or physically disadvantaged urban populations.

This vision has been enunciated by urban transportation executives in cities such as Los Angeles among others and takes the autonomous driving discussion out of the realm of exotic and expensive vehicles solely suited for the well-heeled. While GM’s Steyn did not emphasize this particular aspect of car sharing and, ultimately, automated driving, she alludes to it in her comments.

Automated vehicles as a door to economic opportunity and greater freedom of movement for the financially disadvantaged and the elderly or blind is a game changer. Google has had this vision dialed in from the start.

Looked at in this way, automated driving is no longer the province of daredevils but rather a transformative force in the nation’s transportation portfolio. This is the natural motivation for the US Department of Transportation to find a way to facilitate and fast track the development of this vital economic asset.

Ford has pointedly emphasized its commitment to pursuing a Google-car style SAE Level 4 type of automation – in advance of the USDOT announcing its guidelines for the development of automated vehicles. The Ford announcement wasted no time on the company’s plan for interim stages of automation along the lines of Tesla.

Steyn’s and GM’s vision for car sharing is, by necessity, more fully evolved given the fact that Maven’s car sharing service is up and running in more than four cities and GM has doubled down on new transportation initiatives with its investment in Lyft. It’s clear that GM is well along the path of becoming a B2C organization with dealers playing a supporting role of service and fulfillment.

In the Autoline panel discussion, McElroy raises the cautionary tale of Hertz entering and then exiting the car sharing business after failing to find a way to cope with the costs of owning the shared fleet. Steyn allays McElroy’s concerns noting that GM’s size confers some advantages in providing and caring for the Maven fleet.

The greatest challenge for GM will likely be the rapidly intensifying competitive landscape as car companies including Daimler and BMW look to take on the same opportunity as Maven. Meanwhile, startups such as Local Motors and Navya with their own autonomous buses, already have the jump on automating transportation for urban markets.

Local Motors and Navya understand something that Ford and GM will just be coming to terms with. Shared automated vehicles will operate as a transportation network – something that gives GM yet another advantage. In fact, GM may finally have an excuse to introduce dedicated short range communication technology on Maven vehicles – thereby creating an ad hoc network.

DSRC for Maven vehicles may not be in the cars and certainly isn’t anything Steyn commented on. Steyn did note the advantage posed by OnStar and likened Maven’s launch to OnStar’s emergence on the market 20 years ago.

It’s good to see Ford joining the party. But Ford needs to hit the vision reset button. It’s not enough to build masses of autonomous vehicles. Someone has to buy them unless, of course, they’re just going to be shared.

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