Smartphones: The Ultimate Model for Green Cars?

Modeling vehicles after smartphones such as Apple's iPhone could help usher in greener, more connected cars and trucks, according to Scott Griffith, CEO of Zipcar, the country's largest car-sharing network.

Griffith believes cars should be designed to function more like the wildly popular devices—with GPS, an intuitive user interface, a web connection, and a set of standard applications to help drivers perform such tasks as managing fuel consumption. And an open platform would allow third-party developers to provide software that could be customized for each driver. Loading cars with driver-facing tech could be the key to boosting automakers' margins on smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles, making them commercially viable on the U.S. market.

In recent years many carmakers have relied on bigger vehicles to make money while smaller cars barely turned a profit. Pointing to Zipcar subscribers as examples, Griffith noted: "This demographic will pay up for features."

Zipcar isn't the only startup looking to apply strategies from the cell-phone industry to greener-transportation models. With an eye to making plug-in vehicles affordable for the mass market, electric car infrastructure startup Better Place—working to build out battery-charging and swapping stations—plans to provide batteries with mileage plans modeled after cell phone plans. Consumers would subscribe to a certain number of miles per month rather than paying up-front for a battery, which is the most expensive part of an electric vehicle and a major barrier to competitive pricing with conventional cars. This is comparable to how consumers repay the phone carriers' device subsidies through monthly payments over a set contract period.

automakers now open to connected cars

Beyond the possible benefits for automakers, the high-tech, low-bulk, connected model could also bring plug-in vehicles to the mass market and onto the grid since, as Griffith put it (and we've explained), "Electric cars by nature have to be connected cars." Of course, smartphone-inspired connected cars would also be a boon for car-sharing networks such as Zipcar, City CarShare, and Hertz. As Griffith explained: "We don't want to go hang a lot of new hardware on the car." With an open platform, cars could be equipped for the Zipcar fleet with little more than a software download.

Zipcar is working with major automakers to try to encourage development of this "ultimate vehicle 5 or 10 years from now,quot; cooperating at a level that was unlikely not long ago. According to Griffith, a major shift has taken place in the industry over the last 4 to 5 years because many automakers have lost their "natural anxiety" about car sharing as an alternative to vehicle ownership.

Previously, Griffith said, automakers seemed to wonder, "Is Zipcar friend or foe?" Now, he said, companies seem to realize that macro trends—a tough economy, higher gas prices, changes in urban planning priorities—rather than the rise of car-sharing are driving the move toward fewer cars in cities. Driving adoption of cleaner cars will likely take more time, but taking cues from other innovative industries could be a good start.

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