When the car becomes a service

Tim Maytom
Manik Gupta, head of product, maps at Uber, and the company's self-driving car on the road in Pittsburgh

Automobile manufacturers are faced with a potentially industry-shaking transformation as the rise of mobility and the self-driving car gives way to a new generation of consumers who no longer feel the need to own a car, but simply hire, rent or carpool whenever they need to travel somewhere.

That was the topic discussed at the Cars as a Service panel at MWC today, as representatives from BMW, Uber, Daimler and Hertz gathered to address this fundamental shift that the industry is faced with.

"We were one of the first companies to stick a SIM card in a car, and create a connected vehicle," said Dieter May, senior vice president of digital business models for BMW. "But we've changed our approach now, and thought more about what we do. It used to be focused on the technology side. Now, everything is centred around the customer, and supporting a single customer profile."

The picture that May painted of the future model of car ownership was of adaptive vehicles that personalise based on your preferences, with the rise of self-driving cars and autonomous travel meaning that the experiences you have within the car become more important.

It was matched by Rob Moore, chief technology officer for Hertz, who described how even the 99-year-old company was looking to the future, with customer profiles leading to a new level of comfort and ease when travelling.

"A fully automised car means that when you sign in and collect it, your seat adjusts, your mirrors adjust, it loads your journey plan and your infotainment profile, it knows your schedule. If you're delayed, it can book you into a hotel and when you leave, it can check you out."

Barbara Peng, vice president of research for Business Insider, during her introduction

Moore was confident that Hertz's approach to innovation, which involved integrating IoT technology from a variety of companies including Nokia, would ensure the company would weather the transition to the car-as-a-service world.

"A lot of people think that the autonomous car will end the rental car industry, but all those cars still have to be cleaned, fuelled, serviced and logistically positioned."

Manik Gupta, head of product, maps at Uber, reminded audiences that there was still a considerable amount of work to be done before self-driving, shared cars were the norm. Manhattan has 2.7m cars enter the city every day, and cities are dynamic environments, changing all the time. Keeping mapping data up to date is a complex challenge that requires processing huge amounts of information that is relayed back and forth from vehicles in use.

GPS may be able to place positions down to the metre, but that's still not accurate enough for self-driving cars, which need centimetre-accurate data to carry out complex manoeuvers like crossing three lanes of traffic.

Still, Uber has been piloting self-driving vehicles in Pittsburgh and is now preparing for the second stage of its project, as are Google and a range of automotive manufacturers. Estimates by Business Insider Research predict that by 2021, over 1.5m autonomous or semi-autonomous cars will ship annually, and, according to Manik Gupta from Uber,, if every car was shared, we'd only need 10 per cent of the vehicles that are on the road today, all of which should be arresting figures for car makers.

While they may all be pushing towards increasingly connected, autonomous vehicles, they could be designing the cars that put themselves out of business.