Skift Take

A successful rollout of Accor’s self-driving vehicles hinges on if — a very big if — city governments can agree to re-toggle their infrastructures. That’s a big ask for something pitched as a place to sip champagne and get a workout in the middle of city traffic.

Europe’s largest hotel company plans to take the guest experience on the road in the next decade.

Paris-based Accor this week partnered with French automaker Citroën and marketing firm JCDecaux on the Urban Collëctif, an self-driving urban mobility initiative. Accor’s portion of the partnership would incorporate two so-called autonomous vehicle offerings for its upscale Sofitel and fitness-geared Pullman brands. The Sofitel En Voyage would allow guests to transport around a city with luxurious amenities associated with the brand while the Pullman Power Fitness Pod would act as a gym-on-the-go for travelers looking to get a workout in between meetings.

At a time when getting autonomous vehicles safely integrated onto city streets is already a challenge, Accor leaders maintain these two initial offerings are the leading concepts among 60 discussed during the planning phase. It also helps boost the company’s sustainability mission.

“We always want to be the different player in the group. We like innovation. We like design. We like diversification of our portfolio,” Patrick Mendes, group chief commercial officer at Accor, said in an interview with Skift. “We are and we want to be proactive on this.”

The Accor platform, still in its concept phase, is essentially a two-part autonomous vehicle. The various Accor pods would fit on top of a Citroën Skate, an electric vehicle acting like a skateboard that can be outfitted with a variety of bodies to host different uses. Accor leaders see the concept as an extension of the company’s push to better connect its hotels with the surrounding cities in which they operate.

The Sofitel En Voyage pod is supposed to be outfitted with a nod to French furniture and haute couture and the general vibe of the high-end hotel brand. The Sofitel pod would host as many as three passengers plus their luggage and feature a bar, mood lighting, and a touchscreen tablet to converse with the hotel concierge. The pod would do everything from pick up guests at a train station to whisk them off to dinner or the theater.

The Pullman Power Fitness Pod appears more to do with business travelers who truly have no time to break off to the gym. Marketing materials for the partnership show a user on the Pullman pod working out on a rowing machine as it makes its way down a city street. The pod would be outfitted with a bike as well as rowing machine — both of which would charge the Citroën Skate’s batteries when in use — for use by a single guest.

The idea is the pod opens a new world of productivity — including for the Skate — while one is sitting in one or two hours of congested city traffic. One has to wonder how bad the other 58 concepts were if a gym-on-wheels for a single user is one of the two leading designs out of 60 for a program partially aimed at reducing city traffic.

The Sofitel one appears more practical from a sheer mobility standpoint, but the Accor team maintains there is a market for the Pullman fitness angle. And again — this is all in the concept phase. Citroën leaders say it could be at least another five to seven years before these are whizzing down the streets of Paris or any other global city due to all the infrastructure and regulatory framework involved.

“I was the first questioning [it], but, honestly, I’ve tried it. It’s fun. You do your workout … you arrive, [and] you go take a shower at the hotel,” Mendes said when asked about how much demand there could be for the Pullman pod. “The short answer is that you have limitless possibilities to improve the [guest] experience.”

Avoiding Bumps in the Road

Accor’s first challenge is making sure this initiative moves from the concept phase to reality.

The move may sound a little similar to United Airlines, which has made its own push into electric-powered aircraft as well as supersonic planes earlier this year. Those two deals, particularly the electric-powered one, garnered criticism for being more of a public relations play than something rooted in genuine potential.

The electric aircraft behind the potential 200-plane order is based around an untested technology the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration has yet to approve. United still expects the plane to enter service by the end of the decade.

The Accor team doesn’t anticipate any uncertainties when it comes to its own electric vehicle push. Testing is already well underway for autonomous vehicles around the world at many companies.

While Citroën CEO Vincent Cobbe noted in a presentation it would take at least five to seven years for transportation authorities as well as operators and manufacturers working together to roll out the network, the Accor team is bullish on the venture’s outlook.

“The technology exists, so everything is there,” said Damien Perrot, global senior vice president of design at Accor. “You really feel the impact and how it could really improve the city.”

The Financials

The Accor partnership with Citroën for now appears to be in name only. Perrot and Mendes declined to elaborate on whether any investments were made between the two companies or if a firm order had been placed.

“We are not at that stage,” Perrot said. “What we would like first is to work together in order to make sure this will work.”

That planning phase will determine which cities would even allow the pods to navigate along streets and give the company an idea of fleet size. The partnership pitches the skate and pod technology as something that can improve traffic flow by 35 percent, but that hinges on cities enabling the pods to travel on dedicated lanes.

It is unclear how many cities around the world are willing to hand over public infrastructure to a private entity, but Accor’s team thinks it can play a key role in improving city traffic as well as sustainability efforts.

“It’s really premature to talk about the implementation of this in the city,” Perrot said. “But the energy is there, demand is there, and the need is there.”

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Tags: accor, autonomous vehicles, mobility

Photo credit: A rendering of the planned Sofitel En Voyage pod would whisk guests around a city. Citroen/Sofitel

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