As much as car companies and retailers dream of being disrupters — or disrupting themselves — more often than not, they've been spectators instead, protecting their century-old business models while middlemen, brokers and data miners seize on inefficiencies or new opportunities to capture untapped profits.
So we're heartened to see manufacturers and dealers embracing the promise of subscription models, and leading this movement, even if we don't know exactly where or how far it will go. It's a sign that the industry isn't paralyzed by the fear of what might happen to its traditional revenue streams if it dares to try something different.
Subscriptions — we'll need a catchier term for them eventually — provide an uplifting answer to the grim prognostication that people in the future won't want to own a car. Fact is, people want to own far more vehicles than they can reasonably afford to buy, insure and maintain: a pickup for Ikea runs, a minivan for family road trips and travel-baseball season, a simple grocery-getter, an SUV for snow and potholes, a convertible for weekends, an EV for the conscience, a luxury sedan to impress the brother-in-law, etc.
No shock there. Americans want it all. But until now, the only way to satisfy them was with some combination of compromises, undermined by the burden of asset depreciation.
The good news: Today's robust industry has it all in terms of product, and flexible ownership models represent a creative way to showcase that breadth to consumers. They'll be even better if the offerings become diverse and flexible enough to serve middle-class and entry-level buyers, becoming an instrument of physical and economic mobility.
Getting the pricing and the operating structures right will take time and some testing. But automakers and dealers now have a good head start and are innovating on their own. Moreover, they are grasping that their long-term livelihood lies not in making and selling as many vehicles as possible but in satisfying as many customers as possible, in as many ways as possible.