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General Motor's Head of Urban Mobility Talks Self-Driving Cars, EVs, and Ride Sharing

By Rex Moore - Jun 5, 2017 at 1:36PM

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With self-driving cars imminent, the auto industry is in the midst of its most exciting transformational period since ... well, ever.

If you've been paying attention over the last five years or so, you've seen nearly every car company trying to redefine itself beyond the traditional "automaker" label -- investors need to understand why that is the case.

For example, a Ford (F -1.67%) executive told me two years ago that "We're no longer a car company but a mobility company."

So what does that mean? Consider a future in which commuters summon electric-powered self-driving cars to pick them up and take them to a high-speed rail station. They then board trains traveling into the city before summoning another self-driving taxi to their office.

If that becomes reality, and individual ownership of cars plummets, the automakers have to figure out how they fit into this world that is so very different from the previous century.

It is perhaps a lack of perceived progress in this area that led to the recent leadership change at Ford, with chairman Bill Ford telling Business Insider, "We've never been in times like this, with more opportunities and land mines. We need a transformational leader."

One company that seems to be firing on all cylinders at the moment is General Motors (GM 2.53%), under the leadership of CEO Mary Barra. As my friend and colleague John Rosevear recently wrote, "You don't have to squint too hard to see the picture: a whole lot of self-driving Chevy Bolts in car-sharing and ride-hailing service in cities around the world, starting quite soon. And it doesn't take much of a leap to see another picture emerging: GM making strong profits, as one of the first companies to bring viable self-driving vehicles to market."

So with mobility being the big buzzword word right now in the industry, I was able to have a fascinating conversation at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas with Peter Kosak -- GM's head of Urban Mobility as well as its high-tech car-sharing service, Maven. Peter talked about the exciting changes we might see in the next five years ... and beyond.

Watch the interview below.

A full transcript follows the video.

Rex Moore: Peter, I just came from another car event here, saw the mayor of Austin say, "We have one of the best cities in the world, but mobility is our Achilles heel." It seems like for every auto company that's their focus now. Give us the higher level on why that is and where we stand at this time.

Peter Kosak: I think the biggest opportunity right now is that things are becoming more platform based and less about an individual car that's owned and operated by an individual. I think that better connectivity and everyone having smartphones where they can access things with apps and all, is now opening the possibility for these platforms to exist, where things can interrelate and people can have shared access to automobiles or partake in ride sharing. This could be integrated with mass transit and other existing forms of transit. Things like dynamic shuttles are starting to fill in the cracks. So I think through better connectivity and app-based access, things are fractionalizing where the gaps are being filled in and things are becoming much more purpose-built for specific needs. And an overall reliance on things like just mass transit now is becoming a thing of the past.

Moore: Any specific examples of what we might see, let's say, within five years or so?

Kosak: Sure. Obviously, autonomous is the most exciting of all. But I think there are a lot of building blocks toward that that are, in parallel, being put into place right now. We just deployed both electric vehicles in San Francisco into the ride sharing platform and partnership that we have with Lyft right now. So, seeing how they're used, and the charging behaviors, and the ability of the product, it has a 240 mile all-electric range, duty potential, deployed into ride sharing, it's really exciting. If that's happening, and they're being used to the tune of over 100 miles per day in a ride-sharing network, really the last piece to fall into place there is actually driverless. Getting these systems built out with the storage and staging for dispatch to pick up rides, and charging infrastructure, and all these kinds of things, they're all pieces in an overall platform that I think are going to drive a really different future and a very different face of mobility.

Moore: The Volt, is that in Maven?

Kosak: We are, we're putting it into Maven as well for two purposes. One is vehicle sharing, so people can use their app, in a completely keyless experience. In San Francisco, we have a couple of them, for example, at Union Station, they can join Maven and open the app, locate a car, reserve it, unlock the doors, drive it with push button start, and return it all without touching keys. During the experience, they have the advantages of Apple Carplay and Android Auto, which is another cool feature that makes shared use feel more familiar, with people using natural voice recognition and maps the way they're accustomed to. So, those are available for the city-sharing portion, which is available to anyone in the cities in which we've already launched. The second component is vehicle sharing, but for the sake of ride sharing, so that individuals can rent, essentially, a vehicle for a longer term, have a vehicle for their own personal use, and at the same time, operate it on one of the ride sharing platforms like Lyft or Uber or that kind of thing. It's great for Uber or Lyft, because they get more supply of drivers. It's great for the drivers because they get access to a car that they might not otherwise have access to. And it's great for us, actually, because we're taking vehicles off daily rental and ultimately, off lease. And rather than sending them to auctions and selling them as used cars, we're deploying them into mobility services, where they can continue to generate revenue and profitability for the company.

Moore: When autonomous happens, what will we see out there?

Kosak: I think two things. One, you'll see access unlocked for individuals who, right now, are not able to access mobility. I also think you'll see integration with other forms of mobility. So I think the potential, for example, of autonomous to form a first-mile, last-mile solution to even feed mass transit, to serve as an outlet for mass transit, I think these kinds of things will emerge as well. And I think the second major development will be the opportunity to run transportation systems more from a network standpoint. With autonomous vehicles, the potential is there to run sort of an air-traffic control with a better coordination among vehicles running around and better traffic flow management, and these kinds of things. It can overall become a smarter system when vehicles are connected and when vehicles are responding to the requirements of an overall system, organization, and management.

Moore: In the far future, do you foresee that most people just won't own a car?

Kosak: I think it's going to take a long time for that to happen. I think we've seen data that shows people will want to privately own autonomous vehicles. I think if you look at the first 25 years of the last century, when automotive was just taking root, people probably said that everything is going to look like a stagecoach put on to a frame with an engine and a transmission, and everything would look soulless and refrigerator-like. In the first 25 years of the last century, that's probably, at the earliest stages of automotive, what people expected. I think a lot of people are kind of expecting the same thing in an autonomous world. But I think it's going to curate the same way automotive did over the course of the last 100 years. And I think there are going to be new opportunities and new kinds of services and new uses emerging over time. I think it'll actually look pretty different.

Moore: Yeah. I ask everyone this, so I'm not going to hold you to it. Give me your prediction on when we will see self-driving cars, just to the early point, where someone looks and says, "Oh, there goes a self-driving car."

Kosak: At least even in testing mode with our engineers, you could be standing on a street corner in San Francisco or Scottsdale and see that happening.

Moore: Yeah. But just for the average person.

Kosak: It's going to happen very soon. The reality is, it's going to happen soon. There are some certain things that have to happen before that. We have to demonstrate to ourselves and everyone that we have very, very reliable, robust performance with autonomous vehicles. It's going to happen very soon and probably sooner than most people expect. I know that's pretty vague. You could ask me if I could be a little more vague, but I think it's imminent. It's really imminent.

One other area that's very interesting right now, back to the platform approach, I found in my last five years working on mobility as a service at General Motors and trying to leverage the assets we have to go after that space. I think the other exciting element here is working with cities. That's something we're putting a lot of effort against right now. There are going to be outcomes. The question is whether or not they will be desired outcomes. I think through working with cities and understanding their challenges and their opportunities, the things that they're trying to accomplish, serving underserved communities, controlling congestion, generating revenues in an environment where it's harder and harder to do that through parking and fuel taxes and these kinds of things. I think, through working with cities, there's an opportunity to co-create and demonstrate things and experiment in a broader system. Maybe try some and fail some, but in the end, work toward, ultimately, a system that's much more integrated and that produces much better quality of life for urban residents. I think that only can happen through really tapping into local knowledge, and understanding local imperatives, and getting accommodation on the city side to actually execute things. So, that's a big emphasis that we have as well. So, it's a very different set of constituencies than we've had over the first 115 years of design, build, sell. It's really a different opportunity and a different challenge.

Moore: You can probably answer this better than anyone -- how much of a difference will it make to Austin traffic, D.C. traffic, California? Are we really going to see a lessening of the congestion and pain? Or even the magnitude of it?

Kosak: I think that's a great question. I think the real answer to that, is that it depends on a lot of things that have yet to be determined around adoption of new offerings. I think that, ultimately, one of the mechanisms for reduced congestion will be more ridesharing, meaning, are people willing to ride together? That could be in a traditional car, or an 8 to 15 passenger van, or that kind of thing. Especially during commuting times, that's really the most important time to take the edge off. You take a city like Boston that probably grows by 50% every morning and then declines every evening, and the overall infrastructure is sized for that max congestion period during morning and evening commutes. I think to the extent we're able to get people to ride together and deliver extremely reliable services, where people don't feel like they have to own their own car, or for a particular trip, use their own car to have freedom and certainty the way ownership delivers freedom and certainty right now. The extent that people are willing to ride together, and we create a user experience that makes people willing to adopt that, then you can start to reduce congestion, and you can really change the landscape.

Moore: Big time reduce?

Kosak: Big time.

Moore: There we go. [laughs] 

Kosak: No doubt. The potential is certainly there. I think that's one of the reasons why working with cities is so important, because you have to work on desired outcomes against the shared vision for the future. And then, in co-creating things and trying things, there has to be purposeful data sharing and course correcting along the way as you learn about how things are actually playing out. I'll give even a good example. When we deployed the Bolt electric vehicles into San Francisco, and that product right now is uniquely capable to be an on-demand taxi. Those vehicles are doing, as I mentioned, over 100 miles a day. There are no EVs that can do that. Most are in the range of 80 miles of all-electric range. A car can't go out and do 100 miles a day when it has 80 miles of range, you just can't manage that operationally. We had a lot of people on our team saying, "Look, these taxi drivers are not going to want to deal with that uncertainty, and the processing that driving electric vehicles requires, and keeping it charged and all that." A lot of people said they were going to sit. And in the end, that hasn't happened. Not one has been returned through the program, and they're actually driving them longer distances than our gas-engine cars. So, they clearly feel more comfortable, and they're adventurous, getting away from charging stations and all. And I think that's a byproduct of the performance of the vehicle. But only through actually deploying into those systems are we actually going to learn how people are going to react and actually, in the end, behave.

Rex Moore owns shares of General Motors. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Ford. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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