By Sampo Hietanen, CEO and Founder of MaaS Global

Right now Mobility-as-a-Service is living through a moment in which the realities of those who build it and those who’d like to use it are mile apart. We, that are in the building business, see tectonic plates shifting in the players’ attitudes and technical aptitudes. We are finally seeing changes that will enable the new freedom without owning a car. Meanwhile, more and more consumers understand the promise of MaaS, but are frustrated because they can’t yet have it in its full.

I think the digitalization of the music industry, especially the development of iTunes, offers an interesting comparison. The world of music did not change when it went digital, it just went from vinyl to CDs. Change came with the Internet, pirates like early Napster, and finally with iTunes that made downloading music from the web both legal and easy. One quite commonly shared view of the iTunes revolution is that the really heavy lifting was not the technology, the service itself and the iPod user interface, but it was the deals Steve Jobs negotiated with the record companies to allow their music to be downloaded.

Without challenging the view of Steve Jobs as a master salesman and dealmaker, I think we should note that none of these deals would have mattered, if the digital libraries of the music companies had not been in order, or put in order. Technically, it all hung on the capabilities of the backend systems of the companies providing the content.

And that is where we are with MaaS at the moment. To be able to offer the travellers the experience they deserve, a MaaS operator must, not only be able to connect to and make deals with the transportation operators, but be able to use their offering as smoothly as possible.

To me 2019 was a pivotal year. Cities and transport operators started putting their technical capabilities and their transport libraries in order for the coming digital shift. Only when that’s done, can we focus on the deals that make MaaS possible and hone the apps to bring the best possible user experience. Here’s some heavy lifting that is currently going on:

On the taxi front Free Now (previously Hailo and myTaxi) and Gett have done an admirable job to build a European taxi hailing infrastructure. Their trailblazing work is transforming the whole taxi business from something traditionally very local to something increasingly global.

In car rental sphere there are still big challenges. To make MaaS work, short term car rental is a must, but making rental contracts is still bureaucratic and slow. What’s known as KYC (know your customer) technology in the lingo, including the trust networks that go with it and the very simple-sounding task of remote unlocking of the cars, are not quite where they should be yet. A key challenge, still unsolved, is who in the end carries the responsibility over the transaction. But a tremendous effort is taking place at the moment to work this out.

Meanwhile there’s a lot happening also in the hardware and service businesses. The car companies are readying themselves for the future by designing multiuser and multipurpose vehicles, while a formidable underbush of companies is developing to service the cars and the car users of tomorrow.

Microtransit, especially electric scooters, was the vogue last year and it has come to stay. To integrate their app-based approach to the larger mobility mesh is a challenge, but doable. We recently integrated the offering of Tier scooters to Whim and it was a gargantuan task. But now that it’s done, it definitely feels worth the effort.

The mass transit sector, both public and private, seems often slow to adapt to the changing world, but we must remember that it’s one thing to dump a bunch of scooters into a street corner, and very much another to mess with the transport habits of maybe millions of people.

All mass transit operators I know of are currently upgrading or planning to upgrade their backend systems for easier integration. You cannot have MaaS if you need a token to get onto a metro platform. Or you cannot dream of international roaming if every town relies on its own travel card. Among others, Cubic Transportation Systems is currently doing a wonderful job in making legacy systems compatible with the future.

Here in Helsinki, we’ve sometimes had a somewhat strained relationship with the local transportation authority, but the fact of the matter is that we have helped each other in becoming future-proof. MaaS Global and our Whim app have been a thorn on the local authority’s side pushing for open interfaces, and they have worked hard on making it possible for third parties to integrate to their services. We recognize that without their effort we could not exist in Helsinki.

And the same is happening all over. Sydney, Vancouver, London and Barcelona have made backend upgrades that pave the way to a whole new level of integration. In Switzerland they have Swiss Pass that opens just about any door to mobility. In Japan you can access all public transport with the Suica payment and verifications system. But my personal favorite is Antwerp, where, beginning in May this year, if you want to offer transportation service, you must prove that you are available in at least two independent services. If you give up your car, in return for your registration plates, the town subsidizes you mobility for a good while.

Roaming, the ability to access mobility services wherever you are has always been at the core of MaaS. Just like you can drive your car into another town or country and use the roads there, you must be able to access local mobility offering though your app. And here we come back to the iTunes analogy: the digital libraries of mobility must be in order and accessible for roaming to work.

A few years ago we built the MaaS Alliance to provide a roundtable for cities and organizations to discuss technical integration and standards. At that point we pretty much copied how the telecom industry had organized its international cooperation. Many have been skeptical of MaaS Alliance’s effort but, it has done an incredible job that is slowly coming to fruition. In the end roaming isn’t that complicated. All we need is standards and investments. And thanks to the heavy lifting by MaaS Alliance we are seeing plenty of both. I’m happy to note that one of the trailblazers in this regard has been the greater Helsinki region and our operator HSL. Their backend looks good and is ready to welcome MaaS operators.

Watching the work done through MaaS Alliance makes me confident that the big wheels are turning. Another indicator are all the calls I’m getting from legislators around the world. Recently I have talked to people from Canada, Korea, several EU members, Australia, and even the US. Everybody shares the same challenge: the legislation must allow freedom of mobility and plenty of modalities to consumers, but cannot let freedom get out of hand because in the end it’s the city that pays for the infrastructure and has to keep things in order. Different benchmarks on what’s the right amount of freedom and the right amount of investment are being tested. But these tests and decisions are not made alone: cities are communicating and networking like never before.

Mobility-as-a-Service has been a chicken and egg challenge and will be for a few years to come. Somebody, like MaaS Global has to show and test what’s possible. Without that there’s no push to evolve. But in the end it is the regulators and those responsible for the technical infrastructure that enable the coming revolution.

Now back to the music analogy one last time: for a long time digital music delivered over the Internet was seen as an enemy of good business. The whole industry (though never the consumer) went through what looked like a valley of death. But now, as the business models and technologies of streaming music have developed, and customers have gotten used to it, the whole music industry is coming roaring back.

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