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If Marty McFly could use the limo-version of a silver DeLorean as a time-travel machine, what would he find in the future world of chauffeured vehicles? In all likelihood, an advanced array of cleaner, techno-enhanced vehicles with innovations and robotics thought impossible today.
And plenty of weddings.
Just as the teen-age character McFly got his parents to wed in the original “Back to the Future,” which became a signature film of the 1980s as the limousine industry was coming into its own, the industry will be able to rely on wedding demand well into the future.
That’s an easy prediction. Overall, the ride from 2008 to 2033 should be about as unexpected, unpredictable, and exciting as the one from 1983 to 2008, according to recent interviews with limousine and chauffeured transportation industry heavyweights.
“In my mind, there will always be a need for chauffeured ground transportation; the safest transportation is limousines and livery vehicles,” says Jeff Greene, most recent past president of the NLA and owner of Greene Classic Limousines in Atlanta. “Most people don’t like taxis,” he adds. “Overall, the future looks good, and as the economy gets better, so will disposable income.”
Transformative Engines and Vehicles
Dawson Rutter, CEO and founder of Commonwealth Worldwide Chauffeured Transportation, half-jokes about whether cars will drive themselves based on advanced robotics, thereby eliminating the need for chauffeurs. “I’m nervous about whether cars will drive themselves,” he says. “What will be the impact on our business if the car drives around the block by itself?”
While such a clever scenario can enchant yet frighten any operator, some certainties do arise: oil, bad; alternative energy, good.
“A lot of technologies and R&D are becoming less dependent on oil,” says Jason Kaplan, owner and founder of The Driver Provider, an 87-vehicle chauffeured transportation company based in Phoenix with locations in Scottsdale and Tuscon, Ariz., and Jackson Hole, Wy. “Technology will have jumped out as efficient and enviro-friendly, and will allow us to be less dependent on oil.” The sizes of chauffeured vehicles will be similar, but they will be made of lighter materials, Kaplan adds.
The vehicle industry is only seeing the start of technological progress in engines becoming leaner on fuel and greener in function, says Scott Solombrino, president and CEO of Boston-based Dav El Transportation. “The technology will only get better,” he says. “You’re seeing the beginnings of an industry, like the Commodore computer compared to the latest iPhone; like everything else that goes through development stages.”
Detroit is making a big push to advance the technology, Solombrino says. “Auto (makers) have huge incentives to come up with alternatives to gasoline engines,” he says. “People are taking this seriously. Chauffeured cars will have to adapt as quickly as everyone else.”
Halos for Hybrids?
While Solombrino and Rutter welcome the era of money-saving engines and energies, both remain skeptical of first-generation hybrids being adapted to the demands and tastes of chauffeured transportation.
“The Prius is a joke; it’s a terrible car for chauffeurs to drive,” Solombrino says.
“You will never replace size.”
While conversions to alternative energy engines are a foregone conclusion, says Rutter, citing New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s goal of having all city taxis go hybrid by 2010, he questions whether hybrid vehicles are a viable solution. He foresees other alternatives emerging as the industry standard, such as hydrogen engines.
“Hybrid is a ruse,” Rutter says. “Most don’t get better gas mileage than a regular car. A Lexus hybrid gets two miles per gallon better than a standard fuel-engine model.” Hybrids are not the wave of the future and they will not save the environment, he says. “I think as more and more models come out, we’ll get over that. The Prius is a small car. Most non-SUV hybrids are small cars. They are uncomfortable with limited back seats and trunk space.”
Customers favor green cars as long as it doesn’t sacrifice comfort, Greene says. “For those paying for the luxury of ground transportation, they were fine with green as long as it didn’t touch them and stayed behind the scenes,” he says. “Very few cars have the leg room and engine components yet to turn a limousine into a hybrid. The Mercury Mariner is still small from what clients tell me.”
Yet many operators are already transitioning to hybrids, anticipating at least some lower fuel costs and shifting customer preferences.
Kaplan’s company just ordered 10 GMC Tahoe hybrid SUVs. “We’re feeling the strongest push from the corporate clientele; their voice speaks volumes,” he says. “We’ve had fewer leisure clients that have voiced concerns. If there’s not a huge price difference, most people will take it. There is no difference to the customer in the vehicle.”
Angelo Richichi, CEO and owner of Signature Limousine Services in Linden, N.J., believes hybrids will become an increasing part of the chauffeured car business. “I definitely see a need for hybrid SUVs,” says Richichi, whose fleet includes Town Cars, SUVs, a 22-passenger bus, and various stretch limos. “Now that more companies and executives like the SUVs which are bigger than Town Cars, and with the GMC Hybrids, you definitely see people going that route.”
However, stretch limousines require a lot of batteries and amps, and it is not clear if hybrids can sustain the energy requirements of stretch vehicles, he adds.
Richichi also predicts that once gas prices hit more than $4, you will see many operators converting cars to E-85 ethanol fuel.
The EPA will mandate more fuel economy standards, forcing automakers to develop more efficient engines, Rutter says. “It’s all about what the gas companies and car companies want to do,” he says. For example, Commonwealth owns 50 Suburban flex-fuel SUVS that can use E-85 ethanol-based gas, “but we can’t buy the flex fuel,” he says. “No gas stations that have it. Where is the hook to go find the fuel and put it into the car?”
Look for Fancy Technological Tricks
While chauffeurs will be needed for at least the foreseeable future, they may not need to show up at airports anymore. “Nobody will meet anyone live in an airport,” Solombrino says. “All will be done through technology and a paging system; you’ll alert the driver, enter a code. The whole concept of drivers in the terminal will be a thing of the past.”
Likewise, payments will be done by cell phone through downloaded accounts, he says. Transactions with chauffeurs, including tips, will become cashless, he adds.
While technology can smooth transactions, it also can work against the industry. The use of technology, such as improved videoconferencing, will reduce demand for travel worldwide as workers prefer to stay put instead of leaving home to travel on the road, Solombrino says. Companies may cut back on travel spending as a result, since many workers “are tired because of taking more trips and don’t want to be away from family,” he says.
Solombrino also sees more hurdles for getting into the chauffeured car business, such as increasing rules and regulations, safety requirements, expensive insurance, and overall complexity of running a business. “The old days of being able to jump into chauffeured car business are going away,” he says. “Cities, towns, and states are requiring much more and larger hurdles.” That could lead to more consolidation as larger companies are better equipped to use economies of scale to handle costly regulations and limits.