Thursday, March 31, 2011

Carsharing is dead, long live . . . car rental?

We have been reading and hearing quite a bit in the French media, and in particular in the context of the city of Paris's ambitious planned Autolib project, that "carsharing is dead in France". Which came as something of a surprise given that our own read of the evidence does not at all square with this position. So we asked Nicolas le Douarec, who has something of a record in bringing carsharing to Paris, what he thought about that death warrant. His heady response follows.

Carsharing is dead, long live . . . car rental!

- Nicolas le Douarec, Paris.

Coming from a vague throbbing sentiment, recent news in our small world and a look back to previous analysis), a strong conviction struck me as almost an evidence . . . but one has to be humble !

Yes carsharing, from my own perspective is DEAD -- and if not quite dead yet, I suggest to simply KILL it, with no regrets and no mercy. Such violence may come as a surprise, yet …

1 - Crime scene. Where the murder occurred: Paris France

Mr Bertrand Delanoë, mayor of Paris and great mobility visionary, chucking his city with bus corridors, cycle lanes, Vélib' and now Autolib' (only time will tell whether that visions can stand a persistent reality check), was first to shoot. It was on an otherwise quiet day in 2007, as the carsharing business was finally emerging from a long slumber, a bit slowly perhaps but quite nicely really in Paris by a great tool, the Paris city Carsharing Label ("Label Autopartage") . The mayor surprised the world by announcing that "carsharing isn't growing fast enough"

And Mr Delanoë was right to be at least a tad upset, since Vinci (in a joint venture with Avis Rent a Car), after proclaiming to become the first nationwide carsharing network (oh and by the way such network already existed, say hello to 'France Autopartage !) and announcing that there were ready to put 200 clean cars by the end of the year, managed to put only 20 cars into service at the end of 2007. And even today I doubt that you will find more than one hundred (100) cars in service. As to being environmentally friendly, they picked rather unpopular regular ICE cars, coming straight from manufacturers building inventory (already then!).

Thankfully, upon losing the Autolib' tender Vinci wisely decided to get out of the carsharing business and leave it all to Avis. Indeed, as the leading public parking operator in Paris (with more than 80 sites), they are set to cash in on the Autolib' deal for the next 12 years, renting out to the city's designated Autolib operator Bolloré a parking spot the price of a small luxury one bedroom Paris flat.

So Avis is once again free to use what it really always owned: the fleet of cars and their associated customers ! But who knows today the brand under which they operate, "Okigo" (god only knows how they got this ugly name !). Avis should have known better : after all they had to close down Urbigo in London after a few years of operations (2002-2005).

Whatever! Today a decent rebranding of their website is desperately needed: one can read how two 'great names' joined up forces to create "the most intelligent invention since the invention of automobile". Please, please, calm down !

But Avis is not alone in such self-cast limbo. Let's have a look and shop around the other operators on the Paris scene:

ConnectbyHertz is frankly disappointing and indecisive in France, way behind the US and London. A longstanding "promotion" is offering 75% off the yearly subscription AND 15€ rental credit. It won't take long before they pay you to join !

Caisse Commune is still advertising for new spots… that are now more than a year old!

mobizen has now lost the proverbial initial simplicity and its innovation and growth engine seems to have stalled.

One is staring at this and wondering where the ambition lies. An image comes to mind: the one of a penguin colony waddling up and down on a fast melting ice floe.

The worst maybe comes from the lack of opportunism of the Veolia Transdev merger who seem to be incapable to emerge as the natural and undisputed leader. They should be joining up Caisse Commune and mobizen on this fragmented market. The future of those services has to be questioned.

So it cannot come altogether as a surprise when the director of the Autolib' "syndicate mixte",  Mr Sylvain Marty, takes his leader's words and puts on a yet more murderous spin to announcing in an interview program on national television: "carsharing does not work !"

Boom! He is of course merely articulating the slightly disguised opinion of self-proclaimed mobility experts in the teams of the mayor who seem to be on a crusade (a loaded term in France today) to kill carsharing and drag up in its place the latest new mobility god, Autolib'.

But, wait ! If they only knew how strange it must be to proclaim this since if carsharing does not work, what do I see on this map of carsharing operations in France today?

Beyond Paris and its peculiar buzz, 2009-2010 was the season for quite a wave of rather unexplained - and to a large extent unexplainable - carsharing projects around the country.

Every little town in France that means something on the political scene had to have one of its own (well, not the town, nor its local residents but rather its mayor, especially if MP or better minister of industry !). So every month a new "RFP" was announced here or there. (Just ask people in Nice how much it's going to cost them in public subsidies !)

But now things are a bit quieter, and the news aren't that enthusiastic as this recent piece from the venerable city of Pau illustrates.

* Click here for article (in French but you can use Google Translate to get the gist.)

2 - The return of the Jedi: Car rental inc. ?

If we look beyond the French frontiers, carsharing seems to be in better shape :

Zipcar acquires UK's leader Streetcar after a good bashing and takes some stakes in a venerable bus cashless Spanish operator and now gets ready for its long-due IPO.

Mobility AG: Quietly, smoothly, mobility clocks in another respectable profit (CHF1,6M), Swiss have always been great watchmakers !

• Daimler goes wild on innovation and not only implements one way rentals but blends carsharing and carpooling with car2go and car2gether (congrats to the marketing department for those two splendid creations !)

• Peugeot finds a smart way to use and monetize their dealers rolling stock with "Mu" by Peugeot (in English in the original.. another smart brand name.. mu the Greek letter and a short hand for urban mobility)

• BMW, after a short trial with BMW on demand (a M3 coupe for 40€ an hour !) announces to the expecting world the glorious launch of a "premium" and "innovative" mobility service : DriveNow, shooting for no less than MILLIONS of customers by… 2020 (finally maybe Vinci was right ?). When actually we are talking of a car2go "me-too", except with decent cars this time !

• Renault, well Renault, is no less than boldly and singlehandedly creating a parallel world for itself. Well not so singlehandedly since they have a GREAT partner called "Better Place". We can't hardly wait to see this world here Exxon and Total are finally replaced by electrons and cellphones.

Yet behind the curtains and the theater stage, I sense the reality is a tad more complex -- and, dare I say, gangrenous

Mobility cannot export its virtuous model beyond the Swiss mountains.

Zipcar seems to have broken its growth engine, or at least the clutch after the steep slope of the Streetcar acquisition., So that now the proclaimed world leader might have to lose its title as car rental and manufacturers enter the global arena with their mighty firepower…

• Talking about manufacturers, lead by Daimler, they are investing great bucket loads of cash (tens or hundreds of millions of currency units) into this ecomobility 'bubble' fearing to be left out on the side, as mere suppliers of sheets of bended metal. They seem desperate to keep the fire and imbue passion and emotion (Peugeot's tagline is "motion & emotion") in a world that feels more and more hostile to them. Their marketers, so gifted to find great names and baselines, take them on the slippery quicksands of innovation for the sake of innovation: solar panels on cars, by the minute tariffs, one way, "get in and drive off" (no bookings), no reserved parking, etc.

And who is coming round the corner ? The car rental companies which, through joint ventures are positioning themselves to become the "natural operator "without spending the millions manufacturers have : Europcar takes on car2go in Europe, Sixt partners up with BMW, Hertz carries on taking the world megacities on its own.

Here we are; we have come a complete circle, and logic seems to prevail. Car rental companies rent cars, car manufacturers design and build them 'carsharing ready'. End of game.

3 - Epilogue or Prologue?

I must confess, I never liked "carsharing". I mean this awful ugly word, so awkward, so misleading ("you mean car pooling, don't you ?") and full of "nonsense" (the last thing a carsharing customer wants is to share his/her car with somebody else, it has to be as close as possible to being his/her private car). So time to give it a little nudge and good riddance !

Let's get under the skin. "Wheels when you want them"? Oh dear, if one does not own the damn thing it is plainly and simply a matter of renting a car. A cat is a cat and carsharing is car rental.

It surely has been useful for a while to single out urban, automated, web-enabled car rental -- but enough is enough, and I believe it's now counterproductive because people are confused.

The planet is burning. We cannot afford much longer the profligate, meaningless abundance -- dare I say the waste that we somehow got used to as "normal", that has despoiled our urban landscape. All those seas of cars that rust idle, 95% of the time (at best). What an insult to humankind intelligence, staring at us every time we go around a corner and see that two ton cadaver lurking there as a reminder of our collective foolishness and indifference!

The emergency is sooo simple to name out of the reality distortion of marketing :
1. Let's get those cars on the road
2. Let's fill them up with people
3. Let's make cars different. REAL different.

No matter how, let's deliver, and get results. So much to do, so little time to do it in… and everybody can join the party.

Please, pretty please, stop confusing the hell out of everybody with innovation for the sake of innovation.

Time now for me to have the pleasure to share with you one of my favorite car adverts: the best car in the world, a well-kept Swiss secret:

* Click here for video.

PS. It's called car rental. Okay?

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About the author:

Nicolas le Douarec aspires to becoming a master at leading people and organizations through large, complex, deep, and sustainable change. In 2007 he successfully set up mobizen, a carsharing operator in Paris, now a subsidiary of Veolia. Prior to that, he spent 15 years within the BP group, serving in high profile executive and leadership positions. He is currently focusing his energy in co-creating with pioneering customers a different relationship to auto- mobility where there is a continuum between owning and renting. The new company is called CityZenCar.

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