Lyft COO Talks Tesla, “Peak Car,” and the Future of Mobility

By Kaitlin Milliken |  December 7, 2018

Are we at “peak car”? Analysts and media commentators have recently been predicting that we may be on the verge of a steep drop in car ownership in the US and other western countries. The future may involve far more shared usage of vehicles, relying on services like Uber, Lyft, or Turo, as opposed to car ownership.

And with General Motors’ announcement that the company will cut up to 14,000 jobs and halt production at five North American plants, peak car seems more real than ever.

Jon McNeill, COO of the ride sharing company Lyft, has been thinking about the issues associated with peak car — from a reduction in emissions to the economic impact to the effect on urban design.

“[M]ost of the car manufactures think we’re at peak car. … It’s gonna be a massive consolidation, and the little players are not gonna survive,” McNeill said.

McNeill shared his insights on the future of mobility at InnoLead’s 2018 Impact event. He discussed working with Elon Musk at Tesla, Lyft’s mission, and the rise of bike and scooter rental startups. (Lyft acquired a bike-sharing business, Motivate, in July.)

Insights from Tesla

McNeill joined Tesla in 2015 after receiving a job offer from CEO Elon Musk. When describing the company’s culture, McNeill pointed to a commitment to innovation and problem-solving at all levels. As an example, he relayed how the team approached simplifying the test drive process.

“The key to getting someone to buy a Tesla is to get them into a test drive,” McNeill said. However, potential buyers had to visit the store twice: once to sign up for a test drive and another time to get behind the wheel. Additionally, McNeill said many Tesla stores are located in malls that can be difficult to park at. The whole process, he said, was “high friction.”

“I asked my team at 10…in the morning, ‘How would we do this online so that people don’t have to do this two-step process?'” McNeill said. “I watched our head of digital…and he opens his laptop and starts typing away.”

McNeill said that the head of digital returned that afternoon with an application program interface (API) that would help enable online signups for test drives.

“I said, ‘When do you think we can go into production?’ And he said, ‘I think tonight,'” McNeill recalled. “That happened in six hours, because the expectation is to get stuff done, and you have people that will do that. He’s the head of digital. He’s not holding a meeting do delegate [work]. He’s writing his own APIs.

” That hands-on culture, McNeill said, pervades the whole organization — going all the way to the C-Suite. According to McNeill, he and CEO Musk slept in factories to understand and eradicate manufacturing snafus.

“I’m pretty sure that Mary Barra the CEO of GM isn’t sleeping in conference rooms on manufacturing floors,” McNeill said. “But in the midst of that [we had] solved the problem.”

Exploring Lyft’s Mission

This year, McNeill took on a new role at Lyft as the company’s Chief Operating Officer. He said that he bought into in Lyft’s mission: reducing the number of cars on the road.

“Here’s the mission at Lyft for me: If you densify car transit [putting more than one person in a car]…and then electrify, we get rid of emissions,” McNeill said. “And then if we move to micro-mobility [like bike and scooter usage in cities], we remove…anywhere between 10-40 percent of [car] rides in terms of the city.”

According to McNeill, cities are often built around cars and parking. For example, in Los Angeles about 30 percent of the city is used to park cars. McNeill also pointed to public health concerns related to automobile emissions.

“It turns out if you live within a kilometer of a freeway, your chances of dying of lung cancer are 66 percent higher than if you don’t,” McNeill said. “[Lyft aims to] get cars off the road [and] get emissions down so people don’t have to die of cancer.”