Car Companies Prepare for Global Gridlock

Earlier this month, General Motors announced it will help millions of GM vehicle owners to rent out their cars. The new peer-to-peer car sharing service—a partnership with a start-up company called RelayRides—is intended to “reduce traffic congestion in America’s largest cities and address urban mobility concerns,” according to Stephen Girsky, GM vice chairman.

What?! GM is encouraging people to reduce the number of cars on the road, rather then to buy more vehicles?

The answer is yes. GM’s announcement is an acknowledgement of what Ford Motor Co. Chairman Bill Ford has been talking about for the past year or so: the use of Internet services to improve mobility services, especially in the world’s biggest cities where traffic gridlock has become chronic. GM’s rent-your-own-car project is enabled via GM’s OnStar car communications system, which allows RelayRides borrowers to unlock GM cars with their mobile phones.

Bill Ford, the great-grandson of Henry Ford, is not pushing cool technology for technology’s sake. He’s concerned about the economic, social and environmental impact of having too many cars in the world.Today, there are about 800 million cars on global roads, according to Ford. In our lifetime, the number is expected to grow to between 2 billion and 4 billion

“Thirty percent of fuel used in cities today is spent looking for parking,” said Ford. He explained how the average American spends a week’s worth of time every year stuck in traffic jams and the average driver in Beijing has a five-hour commute. The problem will only get worse in the coming decades as 75 percent of the world’s population will be living in gridlocked cities.

“The freedom of mobility that my great-grandfather brought to people is being threatened,” Ford said, in a talk last spring at the TED conference. “Frankly, 4 billion clean cars on the road are still 4 billion cars. A traffic jam with no emissions is still a traffic jam.”

Huge New Green Transportation Opportunity

This kind of talk doesn’t mean that we should throw our hands up and give up on campaigns to produce cleaner cars.  And it doesn’t mean the industry should stop its push to produce innovative drivetrain technologies, like hybrids and electric cars.  Instead, Ford’s message opens up an entirely new course for long-term sustainable mobility. As he puts it, we need an “integrated system that uses real-time data to optimize personal mobility on a massive scale, without hassle or compromises for travelers.”

Cars connected to a smart parking system could reserve a parking spot before you arrive. Kiss goodbye that 30 percent waste of energy looking for parking—and the concomitant emissions of CO2 and other pollutants—not to mention the waste of one of our most precious commodities: time. That’s one minor example. The ability for cars to talk to each other, to roads, to public transit, and to smart networks of transportation data is an economic and environmental opportunity of immense proportions.

Ford and GM are not alone in efforts to prepare for global urban gridlock. Earlier this year, Toyota teamed up with Zipcar, the leading car-sharing service in the United States, to begin offering plug-in versions of the Toyota Prius. The rumor mill has it that Toyota is considering buying Zipcar to offer car-sharing in a massive way in America’s biggest cities. In addition, BMW recently launched an entire sub-brand called “i,” to produce electric cars and plug-in hybrids, designed to meet the world’s growing megacities. The project goes beyond cars to offer mobile applications for help people more effectively navigate through cities using various forms of transit. 

Nearly every auto company has a similar megacity project in the works. This transition to a connected mobility web will not be quick and easy. But the first step toward change is for visionary companies and visionary leaders to articulate the challenge. How apropos that it come from Bill Ford—the scion of the man who brought cars to the multitude.  “Envision a future of zero emissions, and a freedom to move around the world like we take for granted today,” Ford said. “That’s worth the hard work. That’s a big issue and it won’t wait.”