Elon Musk Beware: Rimac’s New Verne Brand Is Doing Auto Taxis, Too (2024)

If you follow the car industry, you’ll have heard of Rimac. Its Nevera electric hypercar has numerous world performance records, and founder Mate Rimac was the force behind the recently announced Bugatti Tourbillon. But the company has also been working on “Project 3” to pioneer another emerging automotive revolution – self-driving cars. I talked to Mate Rimac and Project 3 CEO and Co-founder Marko Pejković about how their strategy is unique compared to other carmakers focusing on autonomy.

“I’ve been in the industry for 15 years and seen that the tanker has turned towards electric,” says Mate Rimac. “For me, that was old news, but all companies wanted to talk about was how transformative electrification is for them.” Rimac argues that this isn’t such a revolutionary change, as you’re just taking a different set of parts from suppliers and still building a car that goes through a dealer to be privately owned by the customer. “The only thing that really changes is the car doesn't go to gas station, but that has no impact on the on the car company. I was telling them: ‘You think this is the largest transformation in your history, but that's nothing. What's hiding behind the hill is people will not drive cars anymore and ownership will change.’”

Rethinking Mobility Through Autonomy

This led Rimac to found Project 3 (now called Verne) with Pejković, at that time Chief Strategy Office of Rimac Automobili. “Not everybody likes cars, but almost everybody has a car today, because it's a necessity,” says Pejković. “Nowadays people who like horses still have horses. In the future people will also still own cars. But we thought that a big part of the population will choose not to when there is the right alternative. We were thinking about what that alternative was. Self-driving will be a given just like electrification, but we thought there's more to it. An autonomous car should be experienced in a different way. You don't drive it, but you also don't own it.”

“How can you make that experience the best possible one just like smartphones,” adds Rimac. “Every phone can make phone calls. But you don't buy phones today because of phone calls. It's a given. We also think autonomous driving itself will be a given like making a call with an old Nokia phone. That's what we are rethinking with Verne. When you take away ownership and driving, how do you make that the safest, cleanest, most convenient, most comfortable, most luxurious experience possible for everyone?”


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The Verne solution is unlike other autonomous vehicle concepts. For a start, the design being launched is a two-seater, rather than being aimed at families or group transportation. Huge side doors slide forwards to enable ingress, revealing a luxurious interior with a full-width display across the front. Occupants can program their destination and then use this screen to enjoy their own media, personalized to their account.

“When we were starting four or five years ago, there were 20 companies trying to do self-driving,” says Pejković. “We said from the start, it's going to end up with a few companies perfecting this and we're going to use one of these platforms in our vehicle, we're not going to develop it ourselves. We think Mobileye is the best partner for that and we're deeply integrating their system into our cars. This is such a big, challenging project from the financial and resource sides. You can't do everything yourself. You should focus on those areas where you can make a difference for the customer.”

Building Relationships With Host Cities

While autonomous vehicles pose a huge technical problem, there are other non-technical challenges to overcome. “A robust service that doesn't need a lot of oversight is already almost possible,” says Pejković. “If you sit in a Waymo vehicle now, it's progressed a lot in the last few years. Tesla is also showing some good progress. That's one of the challenges. The second challenge is the regulatory and legal one. You need to have a framework to operate. You must talk to the cities well in advance to form a partnership. This is what we're doing. We're talking to 30 cities. We have already signed up 11 of them, with agreements in place where these cities have said we want your service, two or three years in advance of us rolling out.”

“The third challenge is customer acceptance,” continues Pejković. “That one is easier for us, because we're focusing so much on customer experience. But some startups aren’t. They’re focusing more on the utilitarian approach of cramming as many people as possible into something that looks like a toaster. Here the customer acceptance is going to be a challenge because why would I give up on the privacy, comfort, and features of my own car to go into a minibus that is autonomous now. Then there's the financial challenge, of course. You need a lot of money to do this. We're doing it super cost efficiently. We're doing it just the way that we did with Rimac, but it still takes a lot of money. Those four challenges are the critical ones we see in making this happen.”

Verne is far from alone in chasing the potential of autonomy to change the way we engage with mobility. Tesla is perhaps the most high-profile example, with Elon Musk now allegedly refocusing on Robo Taxis, but Chinese companies are working on this area too. JiYue is developing technology similar to Tesla’s and Zeekr’s Mix concept is clearly aimed at a family self-driving experience. However, Verne’s approach is as much about the service it provides as the vehicle design.

“It’s all very well creating concepts, but you don't get to the real challenges until you try to roll out the service,” says Rimac. “It’s really about two things. One is this focus on customer experience. The car looks completely different because the starting point was user experience, not cramming the most people into it. That user experience translates also into the app, the mobility platform, and the infrastructure that you need to keep the car clean, safe, maintained, and charged. Those three elements - the app, the infrastructure and the vehicle - must work together.”

“On top of that is the efficiency of execution,” says Pejković. “You can have a lot of nice ideas, but it's how you get to market in the right way. Once the technical challenge is done, the real challenge becomes how you make a sustainable business. Current companies are not sustainable. They're investing a lot of money rolling out fleets and not making their investment back. But you still must do it as an integrated approach, which means you're not just creating the vehicle, you're providing the service. This non-vehicle stuff is actually two thirds of the cost - insurance, maintenance, charging, cleaning the vehicles, you have to be super-efficient about those.”

Verne: More Than Just A Taxi

“The base model is going to be ride hailing like Uber, where you hail a ride from your app, and you get from point A to point B,” says Pejković. “On top of that, we're also going to roll out a subscription service that will give you additional benefits. But we're also working on other ways of using the vehicle. In the off-peak hours, for instance, when it's not rush hour traffic in the morning or in the afternoon, you'll be able to keep the vehicle for yourself, so you can use it as a mobile office, a meeting point, to relax, or whatever you want to do. That helps from two points. One is basically diversifying the business and secondly, you're utilizing the vehicle more. This will decrease the overall usage cost of the vehicle. But the basic model is going to be very familiar with everybody who ever used an Uber or a taxi.”

Alongside the vehicle and app service, Verne will be rolling out “mothership” facilities in each of the cities it partners with. These are automated centers providing the cleaning, charging and maintenance Rimac and Pejković consider so crucial. “Our motherships provide this infrastructure - the user experience done right as an integrated approach,” says Pejković.

“We see two different approaches that companies have taken to cracking this thing,” says Rimac. “One is the car companies, which took the same approach as they did with electrification. They started with what they had, which was combustion cars, and made them electric and they ended up with very compromised products that people didn't want to buy and then then the car companies thought nobody wants electric cars. But people just want good electric cars. To have good electric cars, you must do it properly, which means developing it from scratch. In some cases, it took over a decade for car companies to recognize this.”

“I’m seeing the same thing with autonomous driving where car companies just take a normal vehicle, stick sensors on it, and call it an autonomous car,” says Rimac. “They didn't use the opportunities of autonomous driving to make a different, better car. But you also have the startups like Marko said producing toasters that, when you do a business plan, look a lot more economically feasible with six people inside than one or two. But the reality is people don't like to share their space with other people and don't like to sit on a little bench, 90 degrees in the wrong direction. We see those two different approaches and startups are, in our view, doing it wrong and not positioned to execute on it. The car companies are having lots of legacy issues and can't focus on autonomy. We think we got the user perspective right, and we know how to execute with a reasonable budget and deliver on impossible things. We are not saying we are going to be the ones who beat everyone else, or that we are better than anyone else, but we have a fair chance.”

Moonshot Set To Land In 2026

The Verne service is lined up to arrive in just a few years’ time. “First, we roll out in Zagreb in 2026, because it's big enough and it's our home turf,” says Pejković. “This will be a limited rollout but it's going to show us what we need to iron out to make a perfect service when we roll out the year after into the next cities. We have a lot of cities that have signed on. There are four of them in the UK, several cities in Germany, and a few cities in the Middle East. We want to hedge our bets. One thing that we can't control is the regulatory aspect. We're not politicians, we're not making those laws. If something happens in one area of the of the world and the party that then comes to power decides that they don't want to see Robo Taxis, we must have enough cities elsewhere. Eventually we think every city will have a service like this, but some are going to be faster than others, so we need to hedge our bets and make sure that we have enough potential markets.”

“It is a moonshot for us,” says Rimac. “When you look at any kind of technological leap, you usually didn't get it from the companies you expected. For example, 15 years ago you would have said the next big thing in mobile phones would come from Nokia or Motorola. Not many would have expected Apple to change that industry completely. When I started, I had no right to do any of this - build the factory in Zagreb, build the fastest electric cars in the world, deliver the highest end batteries to the whole auto industry. There was absolutely zero pedigree, and I didn't know anybody in the auto industry. I just started from nothing. We did that, despite the odds. Marko was an essential part of that.” In a few years’ time we will find out if Rimac and Pejković can realize their disruptive dream again, this time in the emerging market for autonomous vehicles.

Elon Musk Beware: Rimac’s New Verne Brand Is Doing Auto Taxis, Too (2024)


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