Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 20 May 2019

China may hold key to car sharing revolution

In the world's second-largest economy, car-share services could hire out as many as 2 million vehicles in 2020, up from about 100,000 in 2017

New vehicles at a storage area in Guangzhou, China. The country may be the catalyst for car-share uptake. Reuters
New vehicles at a storage area in Guangzhou, China. The country may be the catalyst for car-share uptake. Reuters

When Elon Musk broke ground on Tesla’s Gigafactory in Shanghai earlier this month, he wasn’t just thinking about how many Teslas he’ll sell in China.

He was thinking about how many he might be able to share.

Mr Musk isn’t alone. Global automobile manufacturers are scrambling to develop services that will allow Chinese car owners to rent out their vehicles when they’re not driving them. According to one recent analysis, such services could hire out as many as 2 million cars in 2020, up from about 100,000 in 2017. Indeed, there’s a growing case to be made that car-sharing represents the future of transport in China, and China could determine the future of car-sharing.

Over the past four decades, rising incomes and a booming domestic car industry have flooded Chinese roads with automobiles, contributing to severe air-pollution problems, world-class traffic jams, a city-destroying parking crisis and the loss of liveable, pedestrian-friendly neighbourhoods. Worried authorities have invested heavily in mass transit to reduce the number of cars on the road. They’ve also created barriers to automobile ownership (such as Shanghai’s expensive licence-plate auctions), as well as use (Beijing’s road-rationing regulations).

At least initially, ride-hailing was viewed as another potential solution. But in China, as in other places, it turns out that ride-hailing draws people away from mass transit, biking and walking, and into a growing fleet of cars that may actually worsen traffic and pollution.

The first modern Chinese car-sharing company, CC Clubs, was launched in Hangzhou in 2010. It initially had 30 cars and 13 drop-off/pick-up points located at major centres of employment (such as Alibaba’s sprawling headquarters) and residential developments. Three factors have contributed to its growth since then. First, Chinese consumers, wary of high car prices and traffic-choked streets, are increasingly willing to forgo car ownership altogether. Second, CC Clubs and other car-sharing services are mobile-first businesses that allow consumers to rent cars with apps no more complicated than Uber’s.

Most importantly, those businesses now rely almost exclusively on rechargeable electric vehicles. The Chinese government heavily subsidises the production and sales of EVs, both to reduce pollution and to seize the lead in the next wave of car manufacturing. That lowers the cost of operating an electric-car share and - even as authorities restrict the number of new internal-combustion vehicles on the roads of China’s biggest cities - makes it possible for car-sharing companies to deploy large fleets.

Worried about a potential long-term decline in Chinese car sales, global car makers are thus launching their own car-sharing services or partnering with existing ones. For example, last April, Didi Chuxing, China’s largest ride-hailing company, formed an alliance of global auto companies to design and build electric vehicles designed for car-sharing. Among the members are Volkswagen and Toyota. Meanwhile, Lynk, a joint venture between Volvo Cars and Geely Automobile, recently launched a car-sharing feature in its new models. An owner simply notifies a dedicated network that the car is available for rent, and anyone with a Lynk smartphone app can then rent, open and start it up.

The real revolution will arrive in a few years, when self-driving cars hit China’s roads. At that point, transportation will become truly on-demand: A renter will merely need to notify a car of his or her location, and the vehicle will race over.

This isn’t science fiction. In 2016, Mr Musk wrote that once regulators approved self-driving cars, owners would only need to “tap a button on the Tesla phone app” to send their cars off to generate income “potentially exceeding the monthly loan or lease cost”. He estimated the feature could arrive as early as the end of 2019. Tesla also intends to operate its own network of driverless cars, taking a cut of each ride that could be as high as 30 per cent, in line with current ride-sharing practices.

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That could help reduce the pressure Tesla feels to sell its cars. Instead, the company will only need to deploy them to generate revenue. In October, Mr Musk said that the plan is to have a company-owned fleet operating in places where there simply aren’t enough customer cars to be rented out. He’s focused initially on challenging the likes of Lyft and Uber in the US.

In China, Tesla and others will have to compete against cheap taxi fares and abundant public transit. The Chinese car-sharing business is also brutally competitive and it’s far from clear that the government would tolerate a foreign company dominating the market. Still, with the transition to autonomous electric vehicles already underway on the mainland, China obviously holds great potential for Tesla’s model. Already, the country’s ride-hailing market is bigger than the rest of the world’s combined; the car-sharing market should follow that lead.

Mr Musk’s trip to Shanghai is unlikely to be his last.

Bloomberg

Updated: January 17, 2019 01:23 PM

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