GM, RelayRides: Strange green bedfellows

General Motors is in the business of selling as many cars as it can.

But you may not need to own a car, says Shelby Clark the co-founder and chief community officer of RelayRides, a peer-to-peer car sharing service.

So why is General Motors investing in, and supporting RelayRides?

That was the question on my mind last week when I moderated a panel called Connected Cars and Beyond  at VERGE DC, a conference organized by GreenBiz, where I’m a senior writer.

Shelby Clark

Shelby Clark was on the panel and so was Nick Pudar, vice president of planning and business development at GM’s OnStar unit. GM Ventures, the venture capital arm of General Motors, has invested in RelayRides. (See my blogpost, Car sharing, revving up). Its OnStar unit is going further, by making it much easier for RelayRides to do what it does: play digital matchmaker between car owners and renters.

RelayRides launched in Boston and San Francisco, but recently became the first of a bevy of peer-to-peer car sharing firms to go national. Renters typically pay $5 to $9 per hour–they set the rates–and owners get 65% of the revenues, with the rest going to RelayRides. The median age of both owners and renters is the mid-30s, and they aren’t entirely motivated by money. “Frequently, it’s the environmental and community benefits they like,” Shelby said.

Nick Pudar

GM’s OnStar will make the rental process easier. I don’t own a GM car, so my impressions of OnStar come from the long-running radio campaign which feature real calls to On Star, most following accidents or breakdowns. But OnStar, it turns out, is much more than a safety and security service. GM owners can get monthly diagnostic reports, telling them their tire pressure or reminding them when it’s time for an oil change. A mobile phone app, originally developed for the Chevy Volt,  enables owners to remotely lock and unlock their car. (I’m told that, on average, people lock their keys in their car about once every eight years, but with 6 million customers, that means that OnStar unlocks more than 65,000 doors a month.) The technology also permits owners to start their car remotely.  (Nick told me that when he lands at Detroit Metro Airport in winter, he uses it to warm up the car while he’s on his way to the parking lot.) Of course, OnStar offers navigation and hands-free phone calling, too. And it’s a nice business for GM, with about 6 million customers who pay at least $199 a year.

OnStar owners are already connected to a call center, but more connections are coming because OnStar  recently opened up its APIs (application program interface) to independent software developers. Like Facebook or the iPhone, OnStar will become more valuable by allowing others to write apps for its platform. So if you own an electric car, for example, you will be able to connect it to the grid, and tell your local utility to recharge the battery when electricity rates are low. Or your car can be programmed to learn your driving patterns, enabling it to warn you about a traffic jam and suggest an alternate route home when you turn the engine on after a day at work.

RelayRides will be the the first partner to ride on that OnStar platform. GM vehicle owners who sign up for RelayRides will be able to use OnStar to rent out their cars, and borrowers will be able to use their mobile phones to connect to the OnStar network, enabling them to unlock and lock the vehicle. Currently RelayRides requires either a face-to-face exchange of car keys, or it asks owners to install special equipment inside the car, which adds costs while creating an obstacle to sampling.

GM hopes that if more owners of OnStar-equipped GM cars join RelayRides, renters will like what they see. Nick said the company aims to provide a variety of “personal mobility solutions.”

When I raised a skeptical eyebrow, he explained: “It’s still about selling cars, but it’s about selling cars that meet all the needs of people and society.”

Here’s a video of Nick Pudar explaining why OnStar opened up its platform to outside developers:

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