Managing the new world of transport
More than 130 years after its invention, the automobile is yet to be surpassed for door-to-door convenience. Little wonder that last year Europeans bought 15.6 million new cars, up 3.3% on 2016. Yet while cars won’t disappear from the transport landscape any time soon, the way we use them is changing fundamentally. Waymo, a unit of Google parent Alphabet, is launching a self-driving car service later this year in Phoenix, Arizona, ushering in a significant new era. Meanwhile, private car ownership is making way for on-demand ride-hailing; driver-control for autonomy; fossil fuel for electric.
Managing large fleets of on-demand vehicles across entire cities seems ambitious, but that’s what Swiss start-up Bestmile is offering. Founded by Raphaël Gindrat in 2014, Bestmile has pioneered a platform that allows autonomous and human-driven vehicles of any type to work together in fleets. The platform already supports 12 fleets of autonomous shuttles around the world. The company is engaged with a range of customers, as it can be used to manage fleets of human-driven ride-hailing and micro-transit services as well as autonomous robotaxi services. Typically, their customers seek to embed the convenience and usability of Uber-like user interfaces into their own fleet-management systems, without the costs and risks associated with in-house development.
According Allan Larsen, a transit expert at the Technical University of Denmark (DTU) comparing the concept of Mobility-as-a-Service (MaaS) platforms with Software-as-a-Service platforms like Netflix is fundamentally flawed: “The value of those popular entertainment apps comes mainly from the convenience of their digital interfaces,” he says. “Mobility apps need to control a physical asset in a real-world environment, which is a far more complicated prospect.”
Mix-and-match fleet management
With Uber and Lyft continuously optimising their on-demand ride-hailing solutions, one might think Bestmile is coming late to the party, but that is not the case. The platform is a cloud-based software solution that has everything that mobility-service providers need to design, manage, and optimise autonomous and human-driven fleets. This includes white-label mobile apps for travellers and drivers, but also an operator back-end where services are planned and monitored in real time. With big fleets of driver-operated taxis, all the routing is now the same. In future, transport providers may need to manage mixed fleets with different levels of autonomy and functionality. “Some new autonomous models may be able to handle roundabouts, while others can’t; some may be able to drive on highways, some may not be designed to drive fast enough,” Gindrat points out. “In these scenarios, generic routing is no longer possible.”
Bestmile’s advantage lies in providing a full turnkey solution that is vehicle agnostic. “An abundance of cool optimisation challenges are involved in developing this type of service,” says Larsen. “Bestmile is a very interesting company from my perspective; their ‘core engine’ is built around the same operations management challenges our research team at DTU works on.”
Matching and routing are two of the biggest challenges with pooled multimodal transport services. “A key part of our work is mathematical optimisation routing, despatching, matching supply of vehicles and demand of trips. In order to do that we need our own team of mathematicians and algorithm engineers,” says Gindrat.
Engineering innovations are just one part of a MaaS company’s success, though. Scalability is also crucial. “Our chief technology officer, Zhao Lu, comes from EasyTaxi, the Uber of Latin America,” Gindrat notes. “Adding someone like him to the team means we have a great understanding of how to build a large-scale platform capable of managing a lot of vehicles.” To date, the company has deployed systems in France, Switzerland and the US, generating revenues in the millions of dollars. Looking at the broader picture, the MaaS market was worth €75 billion in 2017 and is expected to grow to more than €518 billion by 2025.