Zoba Qs: Erica Bacon, COO of Volvo Car Mobility USA

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Zoba Qs is a series in which we sit down with leaders from across the mobility space to discuss what’s around the bend. Zoba is on the frontlines of enabling new forms of mobility in cities. In doing so, we get to learn from some impressive leaders in the space, and here, you will get to meet some of them as well.

Today’s post features a good friend and the COO of Volvo Car Mobility USA, Erica Bacon. Erica has experience across the shared mobility space, as an operations leader at Avis, Chariot, ZipCar, and now helping to lead Volvo Car Mobility. This experience has given her clarity on some key questions, including how car sharing might fit alongside AV ride-hailing and what an autonomous future might look like from the perspective of the consumer. Fundamentally, she is interested in giving people the freedom to choose how to move.

Our conversation follows. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

-Dan Brennan, Zoba Cofounder

Dan: Thanks for sitting down with me. To set some context, can you talk about your background in mobility and how you became the COO of Volvo Car Mobility USA?

Erica: I’ve worked for some really incredible companies over the last decade. I spent several years at Avis Budget Group with leaders that mentored me in operational fleet and business management, and from there I went on to manage the Zipcar business for New York/Tri-State and navigated the competitive car-sharing environment. Last year I dove into the emerging shared mobility space with Ford’s Chariot where I worked with city governments to shape a service based on their unique transport needs. When Ford made the decision to dissolve Chariot, I had the opportunity to network and learn about interesting mobility projects here in the US, which is what led me to Volvo Car Mobility, or “M.”.

My decision to join Volvo Car Mobility (VCM), came down to a few key factors: leadership — my boss Stephanie Crimmins is the type of leader I can continuously learn from and I knew she would challenge me professionally; brand — I absolutely love Volvo’s commitment to becoming the first premium car maker to shift its entire portfolio into electrification; and, opportunity — the mobility space is too exciting to watch from the sidelines and having a role in which I can influence the evolution of this fast-paced environment is highly motivating.

D: What has motivated you to build a career in this space?

E: Our city populations are increasing at an unprecedented rate. With greater demand (and decreased funding) for public transportation than ever before, urban residents are looking for new solutions to get from point A to point B. And yet, when we look back at the last 100 years in the mobility industry, not much has changed at the heart of it. Car ownership is still the status quo. Privately owned cars sit idle at least 96% of the time, so that’s a fairly expensive 4% when we factor in the time and money spent on a car, parking, insurance and more.

While we’ve seen some disruption in how we access cars (car sharing, ride hailing, etc.) we’re only at the start of seeing the vehicles themselves migrate from gas-powered human-operated to something new and transformative. I’ve dedicated a career in this space because there are meaningful improvements to be made (some of them small but significant) and if we get it right, the ripple effect will not only enable our cities to really embrace this growth, but really impact people’s everyday lives. It’s exciting to think about playing a role in that future.

“… if we get it right, the ripple effect will not only enable our cities to really embrace this growth, but really impact people’s everyday lives.”

D: What is Volvo Car Mobility and what are you building? Why did Volvo decide to get into the mobility services game?

E: Over the past 5 years, Volvo Car Group has established various standalone companies, each focused on an area of innovation within mobility: Polestar, focused on electrification; Zenuity, focused on autonomous technology; and Volvo Car Mobility, focused on shared mobility. We are a wholly-owned, standalone company headquartered in Stockholm.

D: From an operators perspective, what do you have to get right to successfully operate a shared mobility service?

E: One of the controllable (and often forgotten) differentiator is customer service. This is still a high-touch customer environment and driving a car (or other mobility option) is still a very emotional experience. Even with incredible customer experiences — it’s important to always anticipate and prepare for the moments when things go wrong (and they’ll happen). What makes an organization great is through quick responses, empathy, and equitable solutions that leave the customer feeling truly valued. Some companies lose sight of the lifetime value of customers and most often the customers with the biggest problems, if resolved correctly, will be your biggest fans. To get it right is to have customers intrinsically separate the service from the pack because the value prop stands out.

D: On that same note, what do you see as the biggest challenges to shared mobility services in the US over the next few years?

E: As more private mobility providers enter the market, we’re seeing natural periods of friction between them and the municipalities and existing infrastructure. And some of the challenges we’re experiencing, our European friends have set an example for years ago. From instituting congestion taxes to building bike lanes where parking spots used to be — or even banning cars in downtown areas altogether. Delivery traffic is going to substantially increase over the next 10 years as well, so cities play a critical role in how future congestion can be managed. Removing on-street parking is highly unpopular in the short term, but over time, these infrastructure changes create magnitudes of value for mobility freedom and the impact on our environment.

“Delivery traffic is going to substantially increase over the next 10 years as well, so cities play a critical role in how future congestion can be managed.”

D: Where does data science fit into your overall strategy? Is it more applicable to operations, customer acquisition, or another area of your business?

E: Data science is applicable to every function of the business. We are incredibly fortunate to have brilliant partners that give us data-driven guidance. The days of manual trial and error processes to determine success are removed when you can begin with data-driven strategies. Leading with data allows us to be nimble in this aspect and adjust our business processes as the data and results flow in.

“Data science is applicable to every function of the business. We are incredibly fortunate to have brilliant partners that give us data-driven guidance.”

D: We definitely agree on that that one. So how are the futures of car sharing services and autonomous vehicle ride hailing intertwined? Or are they?

E: I think there will absolutely be crossover, but I still predict people will have the desire to drive and get behind the wheel, creating greater utilization of car-sharing vehicles as well as product offer diversity. Based on studies from groups like Boston Consulting Group and McKinsey, we can prepare for the shift. By 2030: 25% of miles driven will be from shared, automated EVs and by 2040: shared AV’s will reach 35% market penetration.

D: What makes you optimistic about the future of mobility?

E: I think we’re at the beginning of real mobility change and the market is finally evolving instead of resisting this change. By 2022, we’ll have almost 3 million zero emissions EV’s on the road and Bloomberg New Energy Finance notes that by 2040, 80% of shared AV’s will be electric. What this tells us is that in a not so distant future, EV infrastructure and shared EV and AV adoption are going to explode and become mainstream. The technology and performance of these vehicles will encourage buyers to move away from personally owned, outdated fossil fuel solutions and move toward shared, electric autonomous solutions. This disruption prompts a lot of players to join the mobility world. A great analogy for this is the transformation we saw from Blockbuster to Netflix in terms of a mobility scenario over the next 10–20 years.

“A great analogy for this is the transformation we saw from Blockbuster to Netflix in terms of a mobility scenario over the next 10–20 years.”

D: What do you think will be the most fundamental change in how people move around cities over the next 20 years?

E: In my mind, fundamental change will be about the freedom of choice people have — not only how we get around, but also what the experience feels like, what it costs, and how it enables other opportunities in our lives. Cars have long represented freedom, enabling people to come and go as we please, simply by getting behind the wheel of our personally owned vehicles. That promise of freedom remains, but we are also faced with gridlock traffic, increased parking dilemmas, and inequitable costs of ownership that are effectively and completely out of our control.
 
 In a further future, I envision traveling with my family in a shared, electric, autonomous vehicle — focused on enjoying the experience together and the scenery around us, as opposed to traffic or safety concerns. To me, that mental shift in choice and control is destined to happen for everyone.

“To me, that mental shift in choice and control is destined to happen for everyone.”

D: And finally, what are you reading or following to stay ahead in the space?

E: Susan Shaheen, a pioneer and thought leader in future mobility strategies, and Sandra Phillips, Founder and CEO of movmi, always provide some great research within the space and I really enjoy following them. These days I’m following our political environment quite closely! How our country, states, and cities are managed directly impacts how our infrastructure is created and policy changes to enable mobility to evolve in a truly meaningful way. Look at cities like London, Amsterdam, and Stockholm — policies and infrastructure really do have power in the mobility space.

D: Erica, thank you so much. It’s been an absolute pleasure and I can’t wait to see what you and the rest of the Volvo Car Mobility team do for the future of shared mobility.

Zoba provides demand forecasting and optimization tools to shared mobility companies, from micromobility to car shares and beyond.