Investors in major automaker General Motors (NYSE:GM) have fashioned dark red foreheads in recent years from constant face-palming while saying, "Why didn't GM think of Uber?!" Uber has been valued higher than GM's current $52 billion market capitalization. What if GM had had a bright idea like a ridesharing app and created a new revenue stream to win over Wall Street and prove it isn't the dinosaur automaker its forward price-to-earnings multiple of 5 suggests?

Alas, those foreheads will remain red from the initial miss on ridesharing, but a recent report suggests that GM is doing something just as interesting: developing a project that does for cars what Airbnb does for real estate.

What's going on?

Most investors have heard of General Motors' Maven brand, which was launched in January 2016 and which develops the automaker's smart-mobility and ridesharing projects. However, according to a recent Bloomberg report, Maven is cooking up something new, although plans aren't yet public. The report points to tests beginning in early summer, and the idea is to provide consumers a platform to rent their cars to other consumers, and share the revenue with GM.

General Motors' headquarters in Detroit.

Image source: General Motors.

If you're wondering how this is any different from or better than Maven's existing programs, it comes down to ownership. Currently, Maven rents vehicles to consumers and even drivers working for companies such as Uber or Lyft -- GM has even invested in the latter. The difference is that General Motors owns those cars, and by only providing the platform for consumers to rent to one another, giving GM a slice of the revenue generated, the new project would instantly balloon the reach of the program without becoming a drag on GM's balance sheet.

Just as it isn't financially feasible or responsible for Airbnb to purchase tens of thousands of properties to offer consumers on its rental platform, it isn't feasible for GM to do the same for vehicles -- so GM is creating the Airbnb of the automotive industry.

But there's more: If all GM does is offer the platform for consumers to make the transaction, it also avoids having to maintain a fleet of vehicles. It's a brilliant way for GM to generate a new pillar of revenue with little overhead.

Will it work?

There are certainly companies already doing this, although the market is in the early stages. Consider one well-known name, Turo, which has signed up nearly 5 million users to its website, according to Bloomberg, and is valued at roughly $700 million. That might sound like pennies for an automaker the size of General Motors, but investors would be wise to remember that Uber went from unheard-of to a $60 billion valuation in less than a decade. And while a car-sharing market might be smaller than Uber's ridesharing business, if it develops to even a fraction of the size, it would be immensely valuable as incremental revenue for GM. Furthermore, the industry could very well thrive in the years ahead as millennials continue to move to denser cities rather than suburbs. High-density cities typically have a lower rate of car ownership, but for those who already own a car, this could provide an opportunity.

Having lived downtown in a major city for years, I found that my car was sadly neglected for weeks at a time. Had a rental option been available to me, it could have cut down on the number of dead batteries and other general maintenance issues, and even put a few bucks in my pocket. Investors should hope this project is a massive success, because while this might not turn into the Airbnb of the auto industry, GM is in on the idea very early and has a massive cash pile to muscle its way to market leadership.

A little over a decade ago, General Motors would have scoffed at companies like Turo and the idea of consumers renting vehicles to one another. Fortunately for investors, GM is looking toward the future and innovating accordingly, and that alone provides some comfort for those willing to stay invested for the long term. 

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.