There is a lot of chatter about Mobility as a Service (MaaS) but one company is actually doing it. MaaS Global is the group behind the Whim app, which has been available in Helsinki for two years – and has now made its first foray outside of Finland by launching in the UK.
Birmingham, 120 miles north-west of the UK’s capital, London, has been chosen. MaaS Global likens Whim’s model to that of mobile telephone operators, offering convenient monthly travel packages or pay-as-you-go options and building in the capacity to roam. Whim has local support from organisations including Transport for West Midlands (TfWM) and the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA). The appeal is clear: commuters can access numerous modes of public and private transport including buses, trams and trains, with taxis, hire cars and bike-share cycles if need be. Journey planning, reservations, payments and subscriptions are all handled on the app. And it is all – in theory at least - for less than the average monthly cost of running a car.
The company brought a three-storey ‘Tikku’ house the size of a parking space (5m by 2.5m) to the centre of Birmingham to underline what can be achieved when you take cars off the streets. MaaS Global says it is a ‘metaphor’ although it has attracted practical interest. In fact, the house itself (not designed to be actually lived in) was valued at £170,000 by one of the region’s estate agents.
Whim co-founders Sampo Hietanen and Kaj Pyyhtiä are clear-minded about the possibilities for MaaS – and the challenges. “We’re not against cars but we’re firm believers that you can do so much more with that space,” says Hietanen. “This is a B2C [business-to-consumer] business. And not many companies are willing to take the risk of being in a consumer market that didn’t exist before. We’re creating from different pieces from different jigsaw puzzles, ironing it out and making a beautiful picture out of it.”
The Whim Unlimited package – the most expensive - costs £349 per month. “£350 per month is the amount that owning a car costs, not including usage and petrol,” says Pyyhtiä. The £99 Whim Everyday package is going to be attractive to commuters, he believes, with its access to buses, trains, trams and taxis.
The system is calibrated to ensure that users cannot simply replace their personal car use with hire vehicles and taxis. “If you’re taking a free taxi today, you don’t get a hire car,” Pyyhtiä points out.
One of the most interesting aspects of the Whim model is the founders’ transparent belief in the power – and desirability - of competition, in all forms. Ultimately, the customer will make the final decision over what the service will look like, they insist. “The only thing we fear is closed ecosystems where someone else decides what consumers want,” says Pyyhtiä.
“We want to be the best partner we can be,” says Hietanen. “We don’t want to lie at the beginning – we can’t have exclusivity.” So, no exclusive deals with anyone: you can understand that MaaS evangelists are happy with this – but what about partners such as (in this case) National Express, Enterprise and Gett Taxis? “The partners understand that it’s ultimately about the customer,” he goes on. “You might as well join as many MaaS operators as you can and be the best partner to them.”
Every service provider needs to increase usage, insists Pyyhtiä. “We’re bringing new customers from new segments. ‘More bums on buses’, that’s what we’re trying to provide.”
Stuart Everton, director of transport for the West Midlands’ Black Country region, says that Whim needs to be installed in the “city core” of Birmingham first, before it can permeate out to other areas. “It’s not going to be an instant hit. At the moment people are very much wedded to their cars, and it’s mainly single-occupancy use.”
MaaS Global UK lead Chris Perry argues that the city’s rich industrial heritage makes it an obvious home for Whim. “Birmingham has always been at the forefront of innovation: the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution is now the birthplace of the mobility revolution,” he suggests.
Competition is a major appeal for Whim’s partners, Perry goes on. “That reinforces the competitive nature of their products. [A company like] Enterprise has a first-mover advantage, which is massive.” Whim itself expects to see competition before long. “We would be amazed if there weren’t other competitors coming to the market,” he adds. “To have a competitor snapping at our heels would make us more agile.”
There is no real limit to what could be included on the Whim app as time goes on, says Perry: “In rural areas, if a car share scheme existed and there’s an API [application programming interface] which could be incorporated into the app, why not?” Having said that, there are restrictions at present. For instance, Whim’s Birmingham service includes the region’s existing Swift travel card – because at present the technology does not exist to allow MaaS Global to offer the Swift service via the app. But this may happen in future.
One of the biggest barriers to MaaS has nothing to do with software, it is a physical one: in many cities’ transit systems, the gates are not capable of allowing travellers through without some form of payment or ticket – a literal barrier to MaaS, in other words. Technology is changing, and urban authorities are upgrading their infrastructure, but this does mean that some cities which might be ripe for Whim are simply not accessible at present – thus putting restrictions on where Whim can be rolled out.
MaaS Global sees itself, to some extent, as a facilitator. Its skill lies in packaging, bundling and selling the services it offers, rather than providing transportation itself. Critical mass is still crucial for the commercial success of the business. “We have a target,” says Perry of the Birmingham launch. “We aren’t sharing that number with you!” However, there are numbers already available: after two years, Whim has 20,000 registered users in Helsinki. Birmingham is situated in the UK’s West Midlands region, which has around 2.7 million residents. That’s a lot of potential customers and MaaS Global is looking to sign up 500 of them to highlight the business case.
Perry liked the Whim idea so much that he quit TfWM and joined MaaS Global a couple of years back. He is tasked with examining the feasibility of Whim in other UK cities, but MaaS Global’s ambitions are – well – global. In the next five years, it wants to launch Whim in 60 countries, with possibilities including Berlin, Vienna, Munich, Singapore and Montreal. Given that Whim is currently in just two cities (Helsinki and Birmingham, with Antwerp on the way) this is staggeringly ambitious.
A vast amount of computing power is going to be required. Whim is entirely cloud-based and serverless. The other thing required is money: lots of it. Investors must have been given a pretty compelling sales pitch because Whim has some big-name backers, including Toyota, Transdev, Denso and insurance company Aioi. “There is a lot of Asian interest,” says Pyyhtiä. “We have strategic industrial investors. But nobody has majority ownership. We need to be independent.”
Hietanen, not surprisingly, sees Whim’s introduction as being on a par with the first Model T Ford running off the mass production line in Michigan more than a century ago. “Birmingham will be the place, the first in the UK, where we can show the change,” he says. “We have great plans for the city.”
And even allowing for the hype, Whim does represent something different from what has gone before. “Anyone could do it - except that it’s not that easy,” Pyyhtiä concludes with a smile. “We set out on a quest: could we invent a new way of mobility? People have called us crazy for trying.” They may not be saying that for much longer.