Transport Systems Catapult held a conference last week in Birmingham on the game-changing ‘Mobility as a Service’ concept. But what exactly is it?

 

turtle_fishCould new ‘Mobility as a Service’ providers enjoy a healthy symbiotic relationship with public transport?

 

By ROBERT JACK

So what exactly is ‘Mobility as a Service?’” asked Alex Warner. I was stumped. I’d been banging on about how “MaaS” was going to change everything, and yet I found myself struggling to answer this straightforward question. It didn’t help my case.

But I’m not alone. Transport Systems Catapult, the UK’s innovation and technology centre for intelligent mobility, recently gathered great minds around a table to define the concept. It sparked lots of active discussions and the resulting definition was included in a report they published about MaaS in July (part of it can be seen below).

Opening a Transport Systems Catapult conference on MaaS in Birmingham last week, James Datson, the organisation’s MaaS lead, revealed some of the views that had been offered – “MaaS is journey planning”, “MaaS is Google Maps”, “MaaS is contactless payments”. “We already have MaaS in London, what’s the fuss?”

“All of those comments are right,” said Datson, “but MaaS will be a lot more than that.”

MaaS is the “digitalisation” of transport, he explained. Digital technology has already disrupted other sectors, and now it’s going to do the same for transport. Research published earlier this month found that the global market for MaaS could be worth $10 trillion by 2030.

What this means for existing transport providers is unclear. They currently interact directly with their customers, but Datson says that the MaaS “ecosystem” will include two new intermediaries – ‘data providers’ and ‘MaaS providers’. It is the MaaS providers who will interact with customers.

The government is thinking about this. “Techpreneur” Lucy Yu is head of MaaS at the Department for Transport’s Centre for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles. Outlining the pace of change, she explained how by the end of this year it will be possible to buy an add-on kit that gives a regular car the same autonomous capability as a £65,000Tesla.

Defining MaaS

Traditionally our mobility has been provided for by managing fleets of vehicles around networks, framed by strategic transport planning objectives. MaaS, as a service model, turns this on its head by putting the customer first and framing the mobility systems around customer preferences. MaaS offers an opportunity to improve how people and goods move, both from the perspective of the policy maker and for travellers themselves.

Source: Mobility as a Service: Exploring the Opportunity for Mobility as a Service in the UK, Transport Systems Catapult

“This is coming faster thanI think all of us anticipate, even in our wildest dreams … and it’s going to have very profound implications,” she said.

“If you have young children, they may be the last generation of people to own a driving licence. There is likely to come some point in the future in which driverless cars are so much safer than human- driven cars that it is no longer socially acceptable to drive your own vehicle, even though it has the capability to be human-driven.”

Yu believes that the convergence of autonomous vehicles and MaaS offers the potential to invert the current statistics on vehicle usage. “Instead of spending 96% of their time parked, vehicles might instead spend 99% of their time transporting people to the places that they need to go,” she said. And the result will be that mobility becomes cheaper.

In a world where cheap, autonomous vehicles can be summoned in seconds, is there still a role for public transport? Yu believes there will be potential consequences for policy-makers if public transport is left out of the MaaS loop. They could lose the data they need to make informed decisions on planning, and they could lose control of policy levers on air quality and congestion.

“It’s in our best interests to find ways to ensure that this new breed of mobility service … can co-exist with public transport services,” she told delegates.

Some public transport providers might view the new mobility providers as sharks circling around them. But Yu offered the more serene marine image of a turtle accompanied by fish, symbolising the “healthy symbiotic relationship” that could exist between the two.

Later in the day, Fred Jones, general manager of Uber UK, claimed that this healthy relationship already exists. He said that analysis of trip data shows that Uber’s taxi service complements the Midland Metro light rail service in the West Midlands, covering the “final mile” to and from the ultimate destination of travellers.“We are an enabler of public transport, public transport is an enabler for us,” he said.

Stephen Joseph, executive director at Campaign for Better Transport, said some politicians mistakenly believe that the future is about more of the same, but with autonomous, electric vehicles – “a compete misunderstanding of what Mobility as a Service can do.”

Joseph fears a “Californication” of transport, where ideas developed on the west coast of theUSA-“where they’ve heard about public transport, but they don’t know what it is” – are translated without any reference to UK or European culture.

“I think you need to start with access rather than mobility,” he said – and he proposed renaming the concept Access as a Service (although the new acronym would be unfortunate!). “We need to start with people’s needs, not with the technology,” he urged.

Lucy Yu believes that one of the ways that public transport can continue to play a role is if it learns from the best elements of disrupters – for example, using flexible routing and timetabling, based on real time information about traffic and demand.

Another way is to ensure that public transport is integrated with new mobility services, so that these new services augment the existing public transport rather than circumventing it.

Yu argued that it’s important to open up data if this kind of relationship is to emerge, as the government is doing in England through the Bus Services Bill. She explained: “If I have no information about the routes and the real time location of public transport services, then it makes it much more difficult for them to legitimately compete as a viable option for me in a world where Uber, for instance, can tell me the precise location of my taxi, can send me a photo of the driver, can tell me the full cost of the trip and also provide me with hundreds of reviews from previous users.”

If public transport operators are listening, there weren’t many among the 200-plus delegates at last week’s conference – although John Bickerton, engineering director of Reading Buses, gave a presentation about innovation and technology at his company.

Whether or not you participate in the discussion, MaaS is coming. It has already arrived in Helsinki, explained Kaj Pyyhtiä, chief customer experience officer at MaaSGlobal. His company recently began testing Whim, “the world’s first true MaaS solution”, in the Finnish capital (whimapp.com). It offers tailored mobility packages to users with one simple guiding principle – “it must be better than owning a car”.

Pyyhtiä comforted existing transport providers: “All we want to do is buy trips off you.”

Could the West Midlands be the first place in the UK to introduce a MaaS service? Laura Shoaf, who became managing director of Travel for West Midlands in June, said MaaS was “absolutely an integral part of us being able to achieve our ambitions”. TfWM is hoping to agree the scope of a market-driven MaaS pilot project by the end of this year, with a launch following in early 2017.

But, she added: “If I could leave you with one plea, it would be ‘how can we rename Mobility as a Service?’. Because it is such an exciting, fascinating concept – and such a terrible name for it.”

If we can change the name, perhaps it will be easier for me to convince Alex Warner why it’s going to change the world.

  • MaaS MAGAZINE
    This autumn will see the launch of a new publication, MaaS Magazine for the emerging Mobility as a Service sector. For further information email maasmagazine@ passengertransport.co.uk

 

This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

DON’T MISS OUT – GET YOUR COPY! – click here to subscribe!