Jeremy Bishop


Could Owning a Car Become a Thing of the Past?

Sick of dealing with the dilemma of shopping for a new car and all the responsibilities that come with it? You’re not alone. The desire to have easy access to a personal vehicle without the downsides of ownership or traditional leases is driving a new kind of mobility frenzy, second only to the much buzzed about world of electric autonomous vehicles. Once considered a niche offering, more car companies are turning to subscription-based services to appeal to consumers in this new high-tech, digital world where we’ve become accustomed to on-demand options for just about everything.

These sharing programs allow you to escape the hassle of being locked into a long-term car lease while also avoiding the dilemma that comes with growing tired of the vehicle or no longer needing it a few months down the road. They essentially function like a more personal, on-demand car rental service. And after years of being pretty much restricted to basic offerings like Zipcars and the two-seater Car2Go smart cars, there’s a growing number of premium brands jumping into the fray.

Just over the past few months, alone, both Mercedes-Benz and BMW have launched luxury subscription-based services in the U.S. Cadillac’s subscription-based program, BOOK by Cadillac, kicked off in New York early last year and is now offered in Los Angeles and Dallas as well as Munich, Germany. The luxury service, which Playboy recently had a chance to experience in Los Angeles, provides members with access to almost every vehicle in Cadillac’s lineup for a flat monthly fee of $1,800 a month.

“BOOK by Cadillac handles all the maintenance, insurance and detailing of the vehicle and offer personalized service so members can solely focus on the driving,” explains Melody Lee, Global Director of BOOK by Cadillac. “Customers do not sign a lease and are not committed to the vehicle for any particular period of time.” The app-enabled service allows members to browse through a slew of Cadillac vehicles and swap out for a different car up to 18 times a year at any location the customer chooses. Sure, this kind of service might not necessarily appeal to a longtime Escalade owner who is looking to purchase a new model. But for someone who likes a bit more flexibility in life, the subscription model is a much more compelling offering, given you have the option of swapping out a Cadillac SUV for something like a 460-plus horsepower ATS-V Coupe, with the simple touch of an app.
[Car borrowing] fits into this idea of either lowering your transportation budget and having more flexibility, and not having to worry about some of the more stressful aspects of vehicle ownership like insurance and maintenance.
The Mercedes-Benz app-based program, called Mercedes-Benz Collection, is launching in Nashville, TN and Philadelphia, PA with multiple tiers spanning the luxury brand’s lineup, including the company’s popular high-performance Mercedes-AMG models.

BMW’s new vehicle subscription-based service, called Access by BMW, is currently being tested as a pilot program in Nashville and spans the entire BMW lineup, including the carmaker’s hybrids and fully electric models as well as its high-performance M Series vehicles. The BMW subscription service, which touts the tagline “Subscribe. Drive. Switch,” is operated by local BMW dealers and ranges from $2,500 to $3,700 per month, depending on the vehicle.

Adela Spulber, a spokesperson for the Center for Automotive Research, says that while it’s important to note that programs like Access by BMW are targeted at an entirely different consumer base than Zipcars, the growth of subscription-based services is being driven by the changing world of mobility.“It all hinges on the finding ways…to provide a viable alternative to vehicle ownership and doing that by combining different car sharing services, public transportation, walking and bicycling,” the transportation analyst tells Playboy. “[Car borrowing] fits into this idea of either lowering your transportation budget and having more flexibility, and not having to worry about some of the more stressful aspects of vehicle ownership like insurance and maintenance. It’s also a way to expose more people to their vehicles."

Jon Alain Guzik, a longtime auto analyst and founder of the Los Angeles-based EV car sharing service Borrow, says he became interested in the space after noticing that there was a consumer segment being ignored.“We found that there are too many choices, and cars are really expensive,” says Guzik, who shifted his business focus in 2017. “A lot of people don’t want to go through the process of picking out a car. Leases are too long, and some people don’t know if they want to own an electric car. Borrow gives them the flexibility they might want in an electric vehicle, based on their lifestyle.” The company offers three-, six- or nine-month renewable terms for a range of previously leased EVs, including the Fiat 500e, BMW i3 and Tesla Model S.

Maven, a car-sharing service operated by General Motors in 11 cities around the U.S., offers hourly and day rates for vehicles like the Chevrolet Volt, Chevy Cruze hatchback and Chevy Tahoe, including insurance coverage. And rumor has it there are a number of other car companies looking to launch similar programs in the near future.

So, could this expanding world of on-demand personal vehicle services end up taking the place of traditional car ownership? Well, Cadillac’s Lee doesn’t think so. “We see Book by Cadillac working in conjunction with our traditional sales efforts to target a consumer sector who is not yet interested in vehicle ownership, or who is not yet considering Cadillac—it really acts as a complement,” she says.

BMW looks at its subscription-based service as part of a more comprehensive strategy. “Since 2011, the BMW Group has offered a growing range of services for individual mobility, including mobility services such as DriveNow in Europe and ReachNow in the USA,” says BMW spokesperson Phil Dilanni. “In addition, ParkNow and ChargeNow provide customers with digital solutions for parking and charging. ‘Access by BMW’ is another way to meet growing consumer demand for alternatives to traditional vehicle ownership.”

Either way, for those who have grown accustomed to the flexibility of being able to pay-as-you-go for things like cell phone service and an assortment of streaming TV shows, the subscription-based car programs make the idea of dishing out a monthly payment for a vehicle a lot more appealing.