At first blush, the ways in which modeling vehicles after smartphones such as Apple’s iPhone could help usher in greener, more connected cars and trucks may not be obvious. But according to Scott Griffith, CEO of Zipcar, the country’s largest car-sharing network, that’s where we’re headed.
Griffith believes cars should be designed to function more like the wildly popular devices — with GPS, an intuitive user interface, a web connection and a set of standard applications to help drivers, say, manage their fuel consumption, plus an open platform that would allow third-party developers to provide software that could be customized for each driver. Loading cars with driver-facing tech could be key to boosting automakers’ margins on smaller, more fuel efficient vehicles (in recent years many of them have relied on bigger vehicles to carry their bottom lines, while barely making a profit on smaller cars) and making them commercially viable on the U.S. market. As Griffith noted, pointing to Zipcar subscribers by way of example, “This demographic will pay up for features.”
Zipcar isn’t the only startup looking to apply strategies from the cell phone industry to greener transportation models. With an eye to making plug-in vehicles affordable for the mass market, electric car infrastructure startup Better Place, which is working to build out battery charging and swapping stations, plans to provide batteries with mileage plans modeled after cell phone plans. Consumers would subscribe to a certain number of miles per month rather than paying up front for a battery (it’s the most expensive part of an electric vehicle and a major barrier to competitive pricing with conventional cars). This is similar to the way we end up repaying phone carriers’ device subsidies through monthly payments over a set contract period.
Beyond the possible benefits for automakers, the high-tech, low-bulk, connected model could also bring plug-in vehicles to the mass market and onto the grid since, as Griffith put it (and we’ve explained here), “Electric cars by nature have to be connected cars.” Of course, smartphone-inspired connected cars would also be a boon for car-sharing networks like Zipcar, City CarShare and Hertz. As Griffith explained, “We don’t want to go hang a lot of new hardware on the car.” With an open platform, cars could be equipped for the Zipcar fleet with little more than a software download.
Zipcar is working with major automakers to try to encourage development of this “ultimate car-sharing vehicle five or 10 years from now,” cooperating at a level that was unlikely not too long ago. According to Griffith, a major shift has taken place in the industry over the last 4-5 years, as many automakers have lost their “natural anxiety” about car-sharing as an alternative to vehicle ownership. Previously, he said, automakers seemed to wonder, “Is Zipcar friend or foe?” But at this point, he said, companies seem to realize that macro trends — a tough economy, higher gas prices, changes in urban planning priorities — rather than the rise of car-sharing are driving the move toward fewer cars in cities. Driving adoption of cleaner cars will likely take more time, but taking cues from other innovative industries could be a good start.
This article also appeared on BusinessWeek.com.