Pay As You Go

The other shoe drops.

Remember last month when I pointed out that autonomous cars aren’t really intended for individual ownership?

I’ve been wondering how auto makers intended to push people away from car ownership. Prohibitive costs and regulation will only get you so far, after all. The people who can afford to buy a new car every few years–especially a luxury car–aren’t going to be bothered by the registration fee. And if you’re buying a car for the look or the name, you’re really not going to care that this year’s Lexus is an electric.

Well, today’s newspaper gave me the clue. The answer is car subscription programs. Pay a flat monthly fee, get a car, complete with maintenance, insurance, and the ability to swap it for a different model whenever you want*.

* Some restrictions apply, of course.

Some of the services are backed by auto makers–the article I saw talks about Canvas, which is a subsidiary of Ford and, logically enough, only offers Ford and Lincoln cars. Others, like Clutch Technologies, are independent to varying degrees. (Clutch offers high-end models from several manufacturers and concierge service.)

It’s not a lease. There’s no intent to own, and all of the costs except gas are included in the monthly payment. Some programs don’t even require a commitment longer than a month. That’s an attractive model to people who’ve gotten used to that approach with their cord-cutting TV service.

Try it for a couple of months. Don’t like the car? Send it back and get a different one (in some cases you’ll need to wait until the end of your billing cycle). Need something bigger for the weekend? Some services not only let you switch cars at any time, but they’ll even deliver it to your door and help you move your possessions from one to another.

Do you suppose they’ll transfer your radio presets? Wouldn’t surprise me a bit if they did. Be easy enough to have some kind of data transfer tool that downloads all your data–radio, seat position, preferred temperature–via Bluetooth. Horribly insecure, of course, but no more so than anything else in the car, so who cares?

But I digress.

It’s more expensive than buying a car, of course, even with the cost of semi-annual servicing and insurance factored in. And I really doubt that the insurance plans are as good as you could get from an independent insurance company–I’m sorry, but auto insurance is no more of a one-size-fits-all object than a spandex cat suit. Most of us might squeeze into it, but there are gonna be some bits sticking out here and there, and a few of us just plain need more.

So you’re paying for convenience and, arguably, flexibility.

And when the autonomous models start showing up in a few years, well, you’re going to feel pretty smug about your flat-rate subscription that means you don’t have to pay whatever Uber is charging by then. Never mind that Uber probably owns a good-sized chunk of the subscription company and makes the autonomous car you’re subscribed to.

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