During the height of the United Nations climate-change talks in Paris last week, the heads of 13 global automakers and automotive-technology companies signed a letter pledging a commitment “to the vision of decarbonizing automotive transport.” It was one of several business pledges to come on the sidelines of the climate talks, but a significant one given that the U.N. agreement doesn’t specifically address transportation.
The automakers’ letter promised more work on clean fuels, electric drive, and overhauling manufacturing facilities to reduce pollution. But the CEOs—including the heads of Ford, GM, and Volvo—also promised to work on policies including “better urban planning to reduce travel growth” and addressing congestion.
Or to put it another way: less car ownership.
To make significant strides on sustainability, there’s only so much automakers can do with the cars themselves. The internal-combustion engine only has so much leeway on efficiency, and electric cars are only effective to the point that consumers buy them. Which means that to make serious progress on the issue, cars would have to come off the road.
With city residents and millennials making a lifestyle choice not to drive, or at least not to own cars, it’s as much a business decision as it is a sustainability push. According to a 2014 study by AlixPartners, car sharing could replace as many as 1.2 million new-car purchases by 2020.
So automakers are taking the cars to consumers. General Motors has launched a car-sharing program with a New York City-based apartment company that allows residents to check out a vehicle from a fleet and park it in participating lots. Ford has a similar program in London that’s open to the public, and the company launched a pilot in six U.S. cities with the San Francisco-based start-up Getaround that would let customers rent out their own vehicles.
Alicia Agius, who leads Ford’s GoDrive program in London, said the program was designed to be as easy to use as possible, to get a passenger to think of car sharing as just another way to get around in a city where it’s not always easy to park or drive.
“It’s no secret that the younger demographic has reduced car ownership in recent years. We’re looking for ways to engage with that demographic, to engage other than traditional ownership,” she said. “Here in London, we’ve got the Tube [train system], buses, taxis, a bike share, and just walking. How do we add car sharing to that tool kit?”
The work is showing payoff in terms of efficiency. GoDrive has a mix of electric and gas-powered vehicles, but Agius said that the electric cars are getting more play. And the very nature of sharing vehicles is taking away one of the biggest sources of transportation emissions: congestion.
GoDrive has designated parking spaces, and GM’s New York program has designated lots, which means drivers aren’t circling block after block looking for an open space. And GM last year partnered with Google to encourage employees to carpool in an electric Spark, reducing the number of cars shuttling to the tech giant’s Mountain View, California campus.