BMW to launch 40 self-driving city cars in prep. for ride sharing service

BMW is the latest car company to jump into the race to build an autonomous ride sharing service. The Bavarian automaker announced that it will have 40 self-driving cars operating on the streets of Munich next year and will expand the program to other cities shortly thereafter. “There is a trained test driver behind the wheel of every car,” Klaus Buettner, BMW’s Vice President in charge of Autonomous Driving said.

The objective is for BMW to become a major player in the pay-per-use ride sharing market created by Uber. In fact, Uber may have done as much or more to disrupt the automotive industry as Elon Musk and Tesla. It has no factories, distribution network, charging infrastructure, or service centers. Creating a phone app that lets drivers and customers communicate with one another, Uber has been able shop itself at a valuation approximately double that of Tesla Motors.

Why? The investment community foresees a time in the not too distant future when private ownership of automobiles will be a thing of the past. Today, about half the people in the world live in cities. By 2050, experts expect that number to climb to 70% as hundreds of millions of people flock to urban areas. There simply will be no place for private cars in the cities of the future. Congestion will overwhelm commuters.

Autonomous cars will be a very viable solution. A private car is in use only about 5% of the time but a self-driving car can be in use around the clock. The math suggests one autonomous car could potentially move as many people as 20 conventional cars, which would allow the number of cars on city streets to be slashed by 95%. That estimate is probably overly optimistic, but reducing the number of cars by a factor of 10 is likely feasible.

Unlike Uber, BMW intends to own all the cars in its pay-per-use fleet. “Uber and Lyft do not operate their own fleets of cars. Owning the fleet means you can make offers that Lyft and others are unable to provide. For example providing car sharing for a specific community only,” BMW’s Chief Executive Harald Krueger says.

BMW is just one of many companies chasing the pay-for-use mobility model.In October, Tesla announced its own ride sharing service — the Tesla Network — which the Silicon Valley automaker expects to reveal details for next year.

Does BMW have an edge that will help it shoulder its way toward the front of the field? Yes, says Tony Douglas, Head of Strategy for BMW’s mobility services says. “We had 14,000 people sign up in 4 days, in a market already served by Zipcar, Uber, Lyft and Car2go. Someone else spent the money to educate the market and then we came in with a cool product. We will not be the largest, but we can be the coolest.”

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