In What Would Google Do? I wrote this about the idea of the Googley car company, using Zipcar — just sold to Avis — as a jumping off point to the idea of a car company as a service that gets you where you want to go (more than a manufacturer that sells you steel). Little could I know that Google was developing the self-driving car. So this morning, I fantasized that Google had instead bought Zipcar as the start of a service that just gets you where you want to go (serving you entertainment and advertising along the way). Here’s what I wrote in WWGD?:
I discussed my rationale for the open-source car platform with Fred Wilson, a venture capitalist you’ll hear from shortly, and asked him what a Googley car company would look like. He said it already exists. It’s Zipcar, which provides 5,000 cars to 200,000 drivers in various cities and campuses. Drivers join Zipcar for $50 a month, then make reservations online and pick up a car in any of a number of garages, paying $9 an hour or $65 a day in New York, including insurance, gas, and 180 miles. I can get similar rates from traditional rental companies but with less flexibility and convenience. Zipcar says each of its cars replaces 15 privately owned cars and that 40 percent of its members decide to give up owning a car. Similarly, Paris’ mayor announced in 2008 that the city would follow its successful bike-sharing program by making 4,000 electric cars available to residents to pick up and drop off at 700 locations. The goal is to get Parisians to buy fewer cars.
I know what you’re thinking (and can hear the peals of laughter all the way from Detroit): The last thing a car company should want is fewer cars. Are you nuts, Jarvis? Are you a communist or some tree-hugging fanatic? No. I’m just turning the industry upside-down. When I put the question to adman Rishad Tobaccowala, whose agency works in the auto industry, he said Detroit is not really in the business of making cars. He channeled the Googley car company and said: “I’m in the business of moving people from place A to place B. How can I do it in different ways? And as they are moving from place A to place B, how do I make them feel secure and connected?” He said that except for sleep, we spend more time moving around than at home. “Screw Starbucks as the ‘third place.’ The third place today is the automobile.” What is the automobile really about? “Navigation and entertainment,” he said—not necessarily manufacturing. Indeed, Tobaccowala said the most interesting parts of the General Motors business had been OnStar and—credit crunch aside—financing. Manufacturing is expensive, vulnerable to commodity pricing, labor-intensive, weighed down by gigantic benefit costs, and competitive. There’s the tyranny of atoms.
What if a car company became the leader in getting people around and used others’ hardware: planes, trains, and automobiles? You tell the system where you need to go—or with access to your Google Calendar, it just knows—and it gives you choices at various price points: Today, you can take the train for less. Tomorrow, you drive because you’re running errands. The day after, you carpool to save money. This weekend, you get a nice Mercedes for the anniversary dinner. Next week, you take a chauffeur-driven car to impress clients. Along the way, you can pay for options: your entertainment synced in the car, wireless connectivity on the train, alerts to your iPhone, navigation concierges who direct you around jams. This is the new personal transportation and connections company built on the old car company as a platform. Hop aboard the Googlemobile.