Meet the Google Alum Shaping the Future of GM's Car-Sharing Brand

Automarker's Maven Grows in Chicago, Boston and D.C.

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Maven launches in Chicago.
Maven launches in Chicago. Credit: Photo by Brian Kersey for Maven

Zafar Razzacki never imagined he would work for a giant automaker. His resume -- which includes a stint at Google and a few tech startups -- screams Silicon Valley, not Detroit. But a year ago General Motors lured him to lead marketing and user experience for a new "personal mobility" brand called Maven that includes a car-sharing program.

Mr. Razzacki, 37, describes himself as an engineer but a creative at heart. The move to GM was "a little bit of a culture shock," he said. But in many ways, he feels right at home. "We literally view ourselves and are treated by the company as a small startup within GM. We've got this crazy assortment of engineers and creatives and technologists and business people all working together. We are breaking a lot of rules. We are trying a lot of new things."

The newest venture involves expanding Maven's car-sharing service into Boston, Washington, D.C. and Chicago, where the unit is going head-to-head with established brands like Avis Budget Group-owned Zipcar. GM officially announced Maven in January, including launching a car-sharing service in the Detroit-based automaker's backyard in Ann Arbor, Mich. The automaker also began using the brand name on a program it runs in New York City that allows people in three residential buildings to rent cars by the hour. The Chicago, Boston and D.C. services were officially announced on Thursday.

The launches are an example of the blurring lines between the tech and auto industries. Companies such as Uber, Lyft, Zipcar, Apple, Google parent Alphabet and auto stalwarts like GM and Ford are increasingly playing on each other's turf. Sometimes they compete and sometimes they collaborate.

GM's move into car-sharing comes as more urban-dwelling young people opt out of car buying. Here's a telling stat: The percentages of 20-to-24-year-olds with a driver's license has fallen steadily, from 91.8% in 1983 to 76.7% in 2014, according to a recent study by the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute.

GM wants young drivers in its cars, even if they don't own them. And if these people one day decide to buy, the automaker could potentially use data obtained via Maven to market to them.

"That is something we are learning about," Mr. Razzacki said in an interview, as he drove a black Cadillac XTS that is part of the Maven fleet through downtown Chicago on Thursday. "The idea is that Maven wants to grow with you. If you are in that early stage of your life where you are living downtown and are busy and just need a car once and while, then Maven is the right offering for that. But certainly as marriage, kids, home, suburbia comes around and you are thinking of actually owning a vehicle, then you can say I drove the Volt so many times and really loved it, and now it's a car I'd consider purchasing."

GM's Zafar Razzacki stands by a Chevy Volt that is part of the Maven fleet in Chicago.
GM's Zafar Razzacki stands by a Chevy Volt that is part of the Maven fleet in Chicago. Credit: E.J. Schultz

While Maven's ambitions are big, GM is starting out pretty small. In Chicago, consumers can use the Maven app to reserve one of 30 GM vehicles stationed at 15 sites. By comparison, Zipcar has 600 vehicles in more than 300 locations in Chicago, where it will celebrate its 10th anniversary this summer, according to a Zipcar spokeswoman. "Competition isn't new to Zipcar and there is a reason we've led the car-sharing industry in Chicago for nearly a decade," she said.

Advertising for Maven is led by an agency team from the Dentsu Aegis network, Mr. Razzacki said. Ads will be digitally focused, including video advertising on YouTube, he said. Maven will also look to connect with local events, such as music festivals. "We've really tried to craft Maven to be an experience brand and a lifestyle brand," he said. The brand recently produced a video featuring food bloggers and photographers who used Maven cars to partake in a cooking clinic in the outskirts of Chicago hosted by Chicago chef Erling Wu Bower.

Maven is seeking an advantage by trying to offer an easy-to-use, friction-free experience. On a recent day, it took less than four minutes to get approved as a new user after filling out a quick form on the mobile app. Vehicle availability is displayed in the app, along with rates, which start out at $8 an hour for a car like a Malibu, including insurance and fuel, in Chicago. Cadillacs were going for $14 an hour on Thursday. Once at the vehicle site, drivers push a button on the app to unlock the doors -- no separate key card is needed. You can even push a button for remote start or to sound the horn to make finding the car easier. For now, there is no membership fee.

Mr. Razzacki picked me up in the black Caddy on Thursday and we searched for a Volt using the Maven app. It was .8 miles away in a parking garage that was home to two other Maven cars, a blue Cruze and white Cadillac ATS. We exited the parking garage without having to use a parking pass -- it was integrated on the car's windshield -- and drove back out into the bustling city traffic.

The Maven cars come equipped with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. They are also equipped with GM's OnStar system. Mr. Razzacki pushed the OnStar button in the Volt and was connected with an adviser who gave him directions to a restaurant he wanted to visit for lunch later. We dropped the Volt off about a half-hour later and pushed a button on the app to check it in and lock it, never once using a key.

The service we used is called Maven City. GM has also brought the "Maven+" service to Chicago that gives exclusive access to Maven vehicles to residents of a luxury apartment building called Aqua. Maven+ will soon be launched at a building in Washington, D.C., with Maven City launching there by the end of June. Maven City and Maven+ will enter Boston this summer.

Other car companies experimenting with car-sharing include BMW, which in April relaunched its service with a brand called ReachNow in Seattle with 370 cars, which are available in curbside parking spots rather than reserved spaces.

The automaker had earlier shut down the program in San Francisco because of a lack of help from city government, according to recent Automotive News report. Daimler also runs a car-sharing program called Car2Go.

In a report published in February, Boston Consulting Group stated that "car sharing will certainly bring about changes in urban driving, driver behavior, and the business models of [automakers] and new entrants. It will expose new revenue pools and become increasingly relevant to a cohort of mostly younger drivers." But "it is not, however, a true game changer," the report states. "It will not do to the automotive business what iTunes did to music."

The report calculated the number of vehicles that will be purchased for car-sharing fleets in 2021 and the "share of forgone private purchases those sales will offset." The bottom line: Car sharing will cost automakers approximately 550,000 units in worldwide vehicle annual sales that year. As Automotive News recently pointed out, that would represent less than 1% of the 89 million light-duty vehicles automakers are expected to sell worldwide this year, according to German mega-supplier Continental AG.

Boston Consulting Group stated that while car sharing won't spark widespread change, autonomous vehicles will. Self-driving cars will erase "the distinction between car sharing and ride sharing," while "offering users a significant edge in the total cost of ownership," according to the report. But because self-driving cars "will not arrive on the market in force until 2027, there is still ample time for the car-sharing market to evolve and for players to prepare for a period of accelerating change."

One futuristic vision is that car-sharing services will use autonomous vehicles. "Today, you reserve a Zipcar and pick it up; tomorrow, you reserve it and it picks you up," Zipcar president Kaye Cheille stated in a corporate blog post called "The Future of Car Sharing With Autonomous Wheels."

In January, General Motors and Lyft announced a long-term strategic alliance to "create an integrated network of on-demand autonomous vehicles in the U.S." It includes GM investing $500 million in Lyft.

Maven has partnered with Lyft in Chicago to offer Lyft service drivers the use of Chevrolet Equinox crossovers for $99 a week. That program will expand to other markets including Boston, Baltimore and D.C. by the end of the year.

One of Mr. Razzacki's tasks is to chart Maven's future. He will soon transition away from his marketing lead role to overseeing advanced solutions, or what he called "Maven 2.0." His experience includes working for Google from 2010 through 2013, with his last role being a product marketing manager, according to his LinkedIn profile. Before coming to GM he was chief product officer at, which makes automated referral marketing software.

While Maven launched with car sharing, it might one day add other services such as intelligent assistant apps, he suggested. The work is occurring at Maven's offices, which are housed at GM's Technical Center in Warren, Mich., as well as in San Francisco. More than 50 people work for Maven, according to GM.

Notably, the brand name Maven does not include a reference to GM, or even the automaker's signature white-and-blue colors. "This allows us to really approach it from a blank slate and create a whole new vision for what this company can be," Mr. Razzacki said. The brand logo features the word Maven with the A made to resemble a navigation arrow pointing forward, he said. The colors black, white and deep yellow were inspired by streetlines on black pavement.

"Maven is a little different from any of our vehicle brands in that it is trying to solve a problem for our customers. The word maven actually means an expert or a connoisseur," Mr. Razzacki said. So "it made sense to be people's Maven and to help them get from point A to point B as easily as possible."

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