The opening weeks of 2019 have already delivered big announcements from the likes of Daimler, BMW, Seat and Uber. All of them seem to be betting big on smart urban mobility and all aim to create the ‘platform of platforms’ in the city transport space through newly announced ventures.

A decade after Uber brought taxi booking to our mobiles, fresh traction in the space suggests a new wave of innovation might be round the corner for smart urban mobility. Just look at a handful of the announcements made in the last two months:

Daimler and BMW
The automotive behemoths, after concentrating on an ecosystem of services adjacent to mobility (parking; car rental; electric vehicle charging, taxi booking), announced at MWC19 Barcelona that they are going after the integration of all into one mobile app.
This is expected to merge 14 different services into one later in 2019.

Unveiled the Mobility Adviser app at MWC19, which will use IBM Watson AI to help commuters make decisions about their daily transportation options, from scooters and bikes (the so-called micro mobility) to cars and public transport. The initiative is currently at a proof-of-concept stage.

Uber integrates public transit into its app in Denver
It’s no secret that Uber has been trying to integrate public transport routes and ticket purchases as well as the option to rent electric scooters into its app, while also trying to find its way more into our lives through food delivery with Uber Eats.

Here Technologies’ SoMO app
Announced in January, SoMo is an app connecting various on-demand mobility services, offering the option of sharing taxis with selected people, all on top of Here’s core mapping service. It plans to integrate more mobility service providers with SoMo and expand to new cities in the near future.

The common denominator of all these ventures? The creation of a ‘platform of platforms’ for urban mobility that allows commuters to plan their journey end-to-end and through one single app.

Can these companies really live up to their promises? Probably not. Consider the following:
Taxi sharing companies won’t make friends with cities any time soon
The Ubers of the world have been finding it really hard to operate even basic services in many cities due to protests from established competitors and conflict with local regulation over licensing of drivers. One can imagine the challenges of integrating local public transport data, especially when few cities’ transport authorities offer open APIs.
Uber’s Denver deal, to name one example, happened after seven years of Uber’s operation across cities of the world and is still at early stages. There is really no particular reason to be optimistic about the prospects of other players attempting to do the same thing across cities.
Micro mobility vendors’ future in question
Early endeavours in the micro mobility space are disheartening. Emblematic companies Bird and Lime both found it difficult to protect their assets from vandalism, so wide availability of scooters and dockless bikes in cities remain an open issue. In addition, the viability of the business model has been questioned due to small margins, hence talk about Uber buying one or the other. Therefore, even in the buyout scenario, an Uber, Lyft or Grab would have to subsidise their micro mobility business unit due to different margins.
Adjacent tasks provided over third-party apps add complexity
Bringing all urban mobility service providers under one application is not enough. The commuter is still required to perform a number of related tasks separately (mapping; navigating; planning; paying for ticket fares) which are tricky to integrate altogether in one app.
The reasons for this are that few cities offer mobile ticketing services for public transport: mobility apps are not necessarily good at mapping and rely on other apps, such as Google Maps; and payments over existing mobility apps often redirect users to PayPal or mobile banking apps.
All of these add complexity in the end-user experience and there is no development in sight that suggests their seamless integration will be achieved at scale.

Mobility through a single pane of glass is still a far away dream
Of course, integrating multiple means of transport (private, shared and public) and related services into one vendor’s app is a step in the right direction. However, the real value for commuters lies in offering this capability while integrating with all other mobility apps, even competing ones, through a single pane of glass type of platform that can operate independently of the geographic location.

If an app works in London but not in Paris or even in Bristol, is it really valuable and can it scale?

In reality, integrating all these services in one single pane of glass type of application is a far away dream due to inherent limitations in the respective companies’ partnership strategies and business models. For example, a typical European city has around five taxi booking apps and another five bike sharing services, which might not actually operate in the adjacent city or country. In other words, this is a highly fragmented market and further integration is needed.

But without any significant breakthrough, further market concentration such as the move by Daimler and BMW, can only lead to merging just parts of the mobility experience, without any visible way out of the location and multi-apps constraints.

Such a compromise which delivers an inferior user experience should not be accepted.

There is a market gap to fill: what would a breakthrough look like?
Clearly, there is a market need that aspiring entrants are so-far failing to address. Potential propositions might include a “connector” app which will interface with all competing mobility services providers and the adjacent ones, such as payments and mapping.

Of course, this “connector” app would have to be offered for free in order to incentivise companies to on-board. So the question is how to make money from that.

Interesting elements in that direction arise from Iomob, a Spanish start-up; Citymapper; and the Here Technologies’ Open Mobility Marketplace. However, more time is needed to assess their real potential in the market.

Another type of breakthrough would possibly be a solution that enables secure personal data and personal mobility preferences portability across applications. Blockchain presents some interesting attributes on digital identity, but nothing has emerged so far that would be applicable in the short-term.

Until there is a substantial shift in the market, some incremental improvement in our mobility experience is not bad at all, but it’s far from ideal.

– Christina Patsioura – senior analyst, Emerging Technologies, GSMA Intelligence

The editorial views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and will not necessarily reflect the views of the GSMA, its Members or Associate Members.