DETROIT -- A car company looks out at the city, senses a change in transportation habits and seizes the chance to usher in new modes of urban mobility.
That's the short version of what happened in the 1920s, when a young but mature General Motors began amassing struggling urban streetcar systems across the country. The gradual conversion of electric streetcar lines to motorized buses allowed GM -- rather than the electric utilities -- to steer the course of urban mobility over the ensuing decades, even as the company's automobiles helped fuel a flight to the suburbs.
GM and its competitors now find themselves at a similar juncture, determined to get on board with changes in technology and demographics that are bringing people back to cities and car-sharing and ride-sharing into the mainstream.
The question is how: Buy existing mobility companies or just invest in them? Strike technological and business partnerships or build services from scratch?
In recent weeks and months, GM, Ford Motor Co. and others have begun mapping out their visions. But even at this early stage, the burden of proof is heavy. Investors are scrutinizing automakers' strategies for signs of hype and capital-sucking distractions while companies such as Google and Uber, along with developers of mobile apps, are already busy redefining how people get from point A to point B.
On modern transportation, of all things, automakers find themselves playing catch-up.
"I don't know exactly when the light bulb went off for the automakers," Gary Silberg, national automotive leader at consulting firm KPMG, said in an interview. "I've been scratching my head and asking myself: Why haven't they adopted it sooner?"