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GM gets into the car-sharing game with 'Maven'

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Bernie Woodall/Reuters

(Read caption) General Motors President Dan Ammann (L) and General Motors Vice President for Urban Mobility Programs Julia Steyn attend a news conference to announce a car sharing service, in Detroit (January 20, 2016). General Motors said it will launch a new car-sharing service called Maven, expanding its effort to capture consumers who want to borrow cars instead of own them.

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In another move to get ahead of trends that will shape the automotive future, General Motors announced Thursday that it will be building its own car-sharing service called Maven.

The news comes fast on the heels of a $500 million investment in Lyft and shortly after the automaker acquired Sidecar, another rival to ride-hailing service Uber.

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One of the reasons that GM invested in Lyft was to get ahead of competitors on developing self-driving cars. The Maven announcement makes GM's interest in making its own foray into that territory - as well as the realms of Uber and car-sharing service Zipcar - even more explicit.

“With the launch of our car-sharing service through Maven, the strategic alliance with ride-sharing company Lyft, and building on our decades of leadership in vehicle connectivity through OnStar, we are uniquely positioned to provide the high level of personalized mobility services our customers expect today and in the future, GM President Dan Ammann said in a press release.

Billed as a “personal mobility brand,” Maven will initially serve residents of Ann Arbor, Mich., specifically targeting students and faculty at the University of Michigan. Users will initially be able to find GM vehicles at 21 locations throughout Ann Arbor using an app. The app will also enable them to unlock their selected car and control heating and cooling settings.

Maven will be phased gradually into other cities throughout the country later this year, including Chicago and New York. GM is currently testing more possible ways to expand the service at its corporate campuses in the US, Germany, and China.  

Julia Steyn, GM’s vice president of Urban Mobility Programs said in the press release that “Maven is a key element of our strategy to changing ownership models in the automotive industry.”

However, the program is also a signal that GM is preparing for a future in which more people are likely to use a car-sharing or ride-hailing service than own a car themselves. Recent research from the University of Michigan has found that the number of people in nearly every age group getting their drivers’ licenses has been on the decline since 2008. There has been a particularly sharp decline among the number of young people pursuing this once-traditional rite of passage.

Still, the auto industry is having one of its best years ever. Car sales increased to approximately 17.5 million in 2015, but that increase has been coupled with ride-hailing apps like Uber increasing in popularity. The trend is especially pronounced among Millennials for whom living in cities is once again popular: in New York City, Uber saw a fourfold increase in the number of requested rides during July 2015, up from the same period a year earlier.

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GM is not the only car company that has invested in building its own car-sharing service or explored the option of doing so in order to both protect and expand its brand. In 2011, BMW partnered with Sixt SE to launch a car-sharing program called “Drive Now” in Europe, and in 2015 expanded its London offerings by introducing a fleet of 30 electric cars. In part, BMW made that move to weather the financial crisis, which officially ended in 2009 but had a long-term impact on car sales.