Dire predictions about the mushrooming number of cars jamming the world’s roads and clogging the world’s air may never come true. Instead, a dawning era of super-optimized car sharing is poised to shrink demand for cars.
Even General Motors and Ford Chairman Bill Ford have invested in technology that can help make it happen.
We’re at the dawn of the Internet of Everything. Sensors embedded in shoes, stethoscopes, bird feeders, bicycles, and other physical objects are increasingly bringing information about those things onto the network. Social sites pull our relationships and patterns into the network. Mobile devices track our movements and activities. (Techonomy hosts a half-day Lab on the topic next week, on Thursday May 16 in Menlo Park.)
The explosion of data about everyday life means we’ll be able to optimize our lives in ways that are going to have a profound economic and social impact. And one ripe target for optimization is already surfacing: cars.
A car is among our most inefficiently used resources. It’s typically the most expensive thing a person owns other than a house. Yet the average driver in the U.S. travels only 29 miles per day for a total of 55 minutes per day, according to the Department of Transportation. As Jeff Miller of car-sharing company Wheelz likes to say: “Does it really make sense that cars are parked 23 hours a day?”
And yet the number of cars per person on the planet has exploded, from four vehicles per 1,000 people in 2000 to 40 per 1,000 in 2010, says the International Energy Agency. The IEA predicts the number will hit 310 per 1,000 in 2035—billions of cars clogging roads and parking spaces, spewing pollutants, and winding up in dumps when they wear out. In the U.S., the number of vehicles per person is already a gluttonous 660 per 1,000.
An alternative to more cars is already catching on: car-sharing sites like Wheelz and RelayRides. These operate as eBay-like marketplaces for idle cars. Car owners can post their cars to be rented by the hour or day. Users search the site for a nearby car and put in a request for it, which the owner has to approve. It’s a pretty manual process, but it’s taking wing. RelayRides, founded in 2010, this year has seen its transactions grow 45% a month. By late 2012, car sharing had spread to more than 27 countries.
Car sharing sites are such a good idea that automakers have invested. GM, along with Google Ventures and other firms, pumped $13 million into RelayRides in 2011. Bill Ford’s venture firm, Fontanalis Partners, joined Zipcar in a $13.7 million funding of Wheelz.
GM officials have variously said that the investment in car sharing will help keep GM relevant for young people, turn into an interesting way to get more people to “test drive” GM cars, and help boost GM’s OnStar technology. OnStar members can use the system to quickly sign up their cars for RelayRides.
Yet already, car sharing is showing that it can reduce car ownership. Zipcar, the rent-by-the-hour company which essentially shares cars that it owns, estimates that for every car made available for sharing, as many as 15 fewer cars are on the road.
And that’s all happening with only today’s Internet. The Internet of Everything brings even more to car sharing.
Today, car sharing is an ask-and-approve system, organized around where the car normally lives. But sensors in cars, tied back to GPS positioning, could let the network know where a car is parked at any given moment. A car might be parked all day in a lot at an office building—miles from where the owner lives, but perhaps near a potential renter. Or a car could be at an airport lot for days at a time, sitting idle.
Many new cars already come with technology, like OnStar, that allows them to be unlocked and started remotely using a mobile phone. That could let an owner open a car in the airport lot for a renter. The efficiency of matching cars to renters may dramatically increase as people wear sensors that declare their locations and cars supply ever more data about themselves.
A system like RelayRides can make sure a car is used as much as possible. And it can insure a renter has access to a nearby car anywhere. If the inconvenience of not owning a car diminishes, the entire mentality of car buying could change.
If every car now is in use just one hour a day, what if each car were driven, say, 10 hours a day? We’d need 10 times fewer cars in the world. Maybe the Internet of Everything will mean, among other impacts, the Internet of Less Things.
In partnership with Cisco, Techonomy convened a half-day event, Techonomy Lab: Man, Machines, and the Network, on May 16. in Menlo Park, CA.