Over the past few years, car-sharing has grown from a niche business to a behemoth that threatens to take a major bite out of global car sales. The question for users isn’t whether to try car-sharing, but what company to try it with. Zipcar has fleets of cars in most major U.S. cities. Turo will let you rent someone else’s car. General Motors, BMW, and Daimler run their own services. These names are familiar to car-sharing users, but that likely isn’t the case with Vulog. Even though it helps run car-sharing services around the world, you won’t find Vulog’s name plastered on any vehicles.
“We’re not a car-sharing company, we’re a technology company,” Alex Thibault, Vulog’s general manager for North America, told The Drive in an interview at CES 2019. Vulog supplies everything needed for an operator to run a car-sharing service, from an app, to the hardware needed for cars to interface with it, to fleet-management software, and a backend to run everything.
While that tech suite can handle everything from scooters to vans, according to Thibault, the company mainly focuses on so-called “free-floating” car sharing, where cars can be picked up and dropped off anywhere. This allows users to make one-way trips. In North America, Vulog tech currently forms the backbone of French automaker PSA’s Free2Move service in Washington D.C., and the British Columbia Automobile Association’s Evo Car Share in Vancouver. Vulog is also involved with services in Europe, including PSA’s all-electric Emov service, along with Australia, New Zealand, and China.
Helping run car-sharing services all around the world for different client organizations helps Vulog determine what works—and what doesn’t—very quickly, without having to run its own sprawling network, Thibault claims. It also provides an interesting perspective on how car-sharing will continue to intermesh with other transportation options. The car-sharing business looks healthy—people are taking longer trips and demographics are skewing older than the Millennials generally thought to be the main consumers of any sharing service—but that doesn’t mean car sharing will devour everything else, Thibault said.
“It’s really not that people are going to stop owning vehicles, it’s that they’ll be smarter,” Thibault said. Between car-sharing and car ownership, as well as other alternatives like ride-hailing, he believes customers will have a “bucket of services” to choose from. For each trip, people will decide which mode of transportation makes the most sense. Sometimes using a car-sharing service will be cheaper than a ride-hailing service like Uber, Thibault claims, although people have to be willing to drive themselves in order to achieve those savings.
Ride-hailing services have also been criticized for potentially contributing to traffic congestion, something car-sharing services will have to address as well. Zipcar and General Motors’ Maven have shied away from the free-floating model used by Vulog (users have to bring cars back to where they started) in part because of concerns over increasing traffic. Imagine the scooter chaos affecting some cities, but with cars, and the problem becomes apparent. So what does Vulog plan to do about it?
“You see pushback from cities about clustering [of cars in one specific area], but if your fleet is big enough, it’s not an issue,” Thibault said. He added that Vulog can use incentives, such as temporarily lowering rates in one area, to keep cars evenly distributed. Incentives can also be used to nudge users into refueling or recharging cars before ending their trips, he said. But the more cars, the better.
“Every place where we’ve increased the number of cars, the number of trips per car has gone up,” Thibault said. Having more cars means better coverage. If people can easily find a car, they’re more likely to use it. As long as there are enough parking spaces, at least.
Vulog-supported car-sharing services could be taking up a lot of spaces soon. With its chameleon-like approach to the business, Vulog can continue partnering with everyone from automakers, to municipalities and non-profits, to car dealers looking to stay relevant. The company plans to expand its North American operations later this year. Just don’t look for its name on the sides of any cars.