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What is the role of autonomous vehicles within “MaaS” transit?

As the world of transportation continually evolves, the term “mobility as a service”, or MaaS, will soon enter the mainstream lexicon.

While the United States slowly dips its toes into those waters, it can thank the progressive and ambitious thinking of Sampo Hietanen, CEO and founder of Finnish mobility company MaaS Global, for pioneering the concept in Europe. A decades-long advocate for enhanced mobility around cities, Hietanen also believes that autonomous vehicles could be a primary enabler of widespread MaaS adoption around the world. 

“The ultimate MaaS will be one where any type of bot picks you up from your home, takes you directly to your destination, and then moves on for someone else,” says Hietanen.

Making MaaS for the Masses

Hietanen’s idea of MaaS combines everything you need to get around a city—route planning and guidance, transit payment and ticketing, and unlimited access to all forms of transport, from buses and trains to ride-hailing and e-scooters—into one super-app. Residents who opt in no longer need to pay for each train or bus ticket a la carte, nor rely on route schedules and maps—they’re paying for the all-inclusive option, and the ability to move on-demand, regardless of travel method.

Through a single app, says Hietanen, a MaaS operator should guarantee you the ability “to go anywhere, at any time, on a whim.” Hietanen’s use of the phrase “on a whim” is deliberate—MaaS Global, the company he founded, operates the Whim app (widely regarded as the first ever MaaS offering) in Finland, Austria, Belgium, Switzerland, and the UK. Besides Whim, which began life in Helsinki, there are several fully functioning MaaS schemes in place around the world, including UbiGo in Stockholm, Sweden; Choice in Queenstown, New Zealand; the Dubai Integrated Mobility Platform in the UAE; Taipei-Yilan MaaS Project in Taiwan; and the recently announced Move PGH in Pittsburgh.

These projects are the tip of the spear, says Hietanen, who calls MaaS “the human-facing front of digital disruption in mobility.” But for it to be successful, he adds, it needs to be “better than your own car.” The offering should be so convenient that at no point would you be more inclined to choose private car use or ownership over MaaS.

The MaaS Market

Conceived in Scandinavia, where cities are compact and public transport plentiful, it’s easy to see why MaaS is often regarded as a Northern European phenomenon. Indeed, the European Union’s 2020 Sustainable and Smart Mobility Strategy calls for “Making connected and automated multimodal mobility a reality.” 

Yet Hietanen believes MaaS is globally relevant. “I’d say Europe is a nice development lab, the U.S. is where you make your mark and where the big capital will start happening. The big money will come from Asia, and growth will come from Africa and South America.”

The challenges of monetizing MaaS reflect the challenges of integrating private mobility companies—often fast-moving start-ups boasting last-mile modes of transit, funky apps offering route planning, and instant payment for on-demand journeys—into a business model alongside long-established public transport operators with formal ticketing and fixed route, scheduled travel. Whim itself has reportedly suffered setbacks. “There have been some issues,” concedes Hietanen. 

Get it right, however, and MaaS has the potential to displace millions, if not billions, of private car journeys each year, and that’s where shared autonomous vehicles come in. “What we need are shared autonomous vehicles that pick up you and a few others on the way and put you into mass transit,” believes Hietanen. “And with that kind of approach, we can actually reduce traffic on our streets by 30% or more.”

Research by the OECD’s International Transport Forum (ITF) suggests the impact of shared mobility could be even greater, potentially reducing the number of vehicles in a city by 90%. 

Integration of Automakers

Titans of mobility are recognizing the upside as well. MaaS is an integral part of a new corporate strategy for Volkswagen Group, called New Auto, which the automaker published in July. Volkwagen says that, by 2030, it will have the systems capabilities for autonomous shuttle fleets, some of which it will own, the others being operated by third parties. And it’s looking to do this in partnership with self-driving system developer Argo AI, said Christian Senger, Chief Technical Officer of Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles: “Together with Argo AI, we are developing an industry leading self-driving system which will enable us to offer completely new mobility services and autonomous transport services,” said Senger. “Volkswagen Group is aiming for a significant market share and additional revenue streams in this important future business.” 

That autonomous cars will play a role in MaaS, is a certainty, concurs MaaS Global’s Hietanen. “One way or another, AVs will come. Now is the time to make the infrastructure fit.” Ultimately, MaaS transit is about offering something more than transport—it’s about offering a service, and that service is the integration of all forms of mobility, from shared bicycles to autonomous vehicles.

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