Is the world really ready for a smartphone on wheels?

By Jeff Osborne, Head of Gumtree Automotive

Alain Visser has been selling cars for thirty years, as Senior VP at Volvo Cars, at Ford, at General Motors, and Opel. And, as he puts it, he is tired of the way it’s been done. Lynk & Co, his pet project, is pegged to become the “AirBNB of auto sales”.

Lynk & Co represents the next era of car selling and indeed, car ownership – one that believes the market needs to be remolded into something entirely new. Made in China and owned by Geely (that also owns Volvo), the Lynk will go on sale in Europe and the US in 2018 after a launch on their home shores.

Although the Lynk seems like any mid-market compact SUV, Visser chooses to describe it as “the very first smartphone on wheels”. Marketed at millennials in urban areas, the car is permanently connected to the Internet and comes equipped with a share button which enables the owner to rent the car to other motorists via an app. Geely aims to sell at least half a million Lynks by 2021.

It’s easy to dismiss the Lynk as a fly-by-night. Historically, new car brands have died quiet deaths almost at their inception, with no goodwill to build on and few consumers willing to take a gamble on an unknown (and expensive) product. However, the car has an impressive pedigree.

With design guru Peter Horbury at the helm (formerly of Jaguar, Aston Martin, Ford and other brands) and an impressive 1.5-litre three-cylinder hybrid-powered engine, combined with a lithium-ion battery, the car is giving European automakers a run for their money, while capitalizing on the affordability advantage that Chinese manufacturers inevitably hold. Moreover, the company is the first to aggressive future-proof by capitalizing on current and concerning tech trends, such as the on-demand economy and the diminishing need for ownership.

For one thing, the car will not be sold through dealerships. Instead, it will be ordered online and delivered to your door. Services will be similarly scheduled – and the car conveniently collected wherever you are based. The car will also have its own app store with open APIs so that developers can build their own apps and add-ons. Car owners will be able to manage the car remotely, distributing digital “keys” to whoever needs it. Instead of ownership, they are building a model of usership.

As excited as I am about the innovation, I can’t help but foster some doubt about the premise. Cars are expensive assets to own and maintain, and while you will be earning money when your car is not being used, you will also be adding more mileage to it than you would with a single user. More mileage translates to wear, which translates to maintenance. Anyone who has ever had to hand their keys to their teenager for the first time will know how daunting of a prospect it is to have someone else drive your car; with this model, you will be handing your car to strangers every single day.

Remember, it’s not just a matter of buying a car and owning a car. What will your insurance policies look like? What will legalization say? (For example, how would you handle a traffic fine dispute? An accident? If your tires are worn and one of the drivers borrowing your car is involved in an accident as a result, are you liable?) These are questions that are not subject to Lynk’s control alone.

These cars, even though they are competitively priced, are going to be expensive (as all new cars are). Will millennials be willing to put a significant chunk of their income into an untested, unknown Chinese brand with no history, no physical presence, no face-to-face sales staff?

As much as I admire Visser’s vision, I have to wonder if this model can work in isolation. Certainly, I do think most car brands will evolve into something very similar in the future. I’m just not convinced that it will be within the near future. And while I’m not ageist, it is ironic that an entire marketing team hoping to speak to an audience of millennials have been in the industry longer than their target market has been alive. Maybe the Lynk is the future that the next generation is clamoring for. Maybe it’s just the industry’s guess at what the next generation will want.

In any event, I’m curious to find out.