Those jumbles of electric scooters piled up on sidewalks in San Francisco, Seattle, Beijing or other digitally minded cities are more than just a mess. They’re the primordial ooze from which a new transportation ecosystem will arise, one expected to lead to the extinction of the model that dominated the 20th century: the individually owned automobile.
1. What will take its place?
Something that’s known as mobility as a service, or MAAS, according to carmakers and urban planners. That means a network of coordinated forms of transportation that each handle the parts of a journey in the cheapest and most convenient way. From a smartphone app, a traveler can book ride-hailing services, public transportation, e-bikes, e-scooters and, eventually, robo-taxis. Car payments and parking fees will be replaced by buying transportation by the mile on a subscription service similar to Netflix.
2. Is this a real thing yet?
Sort of. Someone who has given up a car in favor of relying on Uber or even taxis is in a sense using mobility as a service. More ambitious programs exist only in limited tests in a few cities. The largest pilot program began operating a year ago in Helsinki, Finland. Known as Whim, owned by MaaS Global, commuters can chose different levels of service on the Whim app to gain access to taxis, buses, trams, trains, ferries, rental cars, bikes and scooters. Whim has already expanded into Birmingham, England, and Antwerp, Belgium, and MaaS Global plans to roll it out in North America, Asia and Australia by year’s end.
3. Who’s pushing it?
Many of the same companies that are developing self-driving cars: tech giants Apple and Google parent Alphabet Inc.; the world’s biggest automakers, including Volkswagen AG, Toyota Motor Corp. and General Motors Co. and ride-hailing ventures like Lyft and Uber. Uber, for instance, has started connecting its app to public transportation options in London, Denver and other cities.
4. What’s in it for them?
Car companies and the others see the switch as inevitable. For one thing, congestion would make individual ownership impossible as the world’s biggest cities are expected to swell until they’re home to two-thirds of a projected global population of 9.8 billion in 2050. So they don’t want to miss out. But they also see providing mobility as a profitable path forward. Ford Motor Co. estimates that mobility services could grow to a $10 trillion business, with profit margins double the 10% that automakers clear in their best years in their traditional business. Others are skeptical of such claims, questioning why competition wouldn’t drive margins down. So far, after all, companies like Uber and Lyft are consistent money losers. Even so, the field is attracting startups and venture capital -- about $5 billion in 2018, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance research.
5. What would make this work?
Mobility as a service is arriving and moving forward without self-driving cars. But getting it to work on a large scale and making it profitable both depend on removing the human driver -- a step some estimate will cut the cost of a ride from $2 to $3 a mile to about 70 cents per mile, according to UBS. The first driverless cars, laden with advanced technology, will be far too expensive for individuals to own. So they will need to be connected to a transportation network where multiple users pay for their use collectively.
6. Will this be a good deal for riders?
In some cities, with extensive public or subsidized options, yes. In others, only when the robots show up. Taking a human driven taxi today adds up to more than private ownership of a car for most people. Tesla CEO Elon Musk says he can lower that to 18 cents a mile in his electric robo-taxis of the future, by convincing Tesla owners to let their cars drive other people around when they don’t need them, for a cut of the fare.
7. Are there other reasons to make this switch?
A world of coordinated and automated transportation could dramatically reduce the 1.25 million global road deaths annually, safety experts says. U.S. regulators blame human error for nine out of 10 highway fatalities. And with most modes of transportation expected to run on electricity, the environment will benefit from a massive reduction in human-made CO2. From an individual perspective, mobility as a service will wring waste out of the system. Individually owned cars sit idle in driveways and parking garages 94% of the time. With mobility as a service, travelers will pay only for the transportation they use.
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