The End Of The Beginning For Ride Hailing

Aswin Mannepalli

The 2010s were the decade when mobility-as-a-service (MaaS) went from a new idea to a big business. The Lyft and Uber IPOs in 2019 were fitting capstones to years marked by rapid innovation (and many growing pains).

What does the future hold? Recently, my colleague Senta Belay and I shared our predictions for MaaS in the decade ahead on the Coffee Break with Game-Changers Podcast.  My take is that the public markets have indicated that MaaS 1.0 is not quite the end of the journey. The business models of these companies are still too unoptimized, leaving many to question whether the path to long-term profitability is a mirage.

The 2020s will see these companies pursue sustainable profitability through innovations that will fundamentally alter the way they do business. We expect these companies to pursue four near-term strategic objectives:

  1. Emphasis on experience to fight commodification
  2. Emphasis on subscription-based business models
  3. Expansion into other mobility categories
  4. Growing public-private partnerships

Taken together, these investments will lay the foundation of MaaS 2.0. We expect these trends to flower in the five-year horizon (sorry, autonomous driving!).

Experience is everything

How does a MaaS provider distinguish itself when it is essentially offering a commodity? Since the user of mobility does not push the pedal to the metal, the emotional connection to driving is less intense. Without that emotional spark, how can companies like Lyft create brand loyalty? Yes, they can offer a seamless experience, but without the strong anchor of positive feelings, users of mobility will simply optimize on price.

A race to the bottom will not lead to gross margin expansion. So mobility providers will need to think cleverly about how to build memorable experiences such that customers will be willing to pay a bit more.

How does a MaaS provider build this kind of attachment? Most users of Uber and Lyft are between the ages of 18 and 29 and live in cities. More importantly, this generation treats mobility as something that unlocks new experiences rather than a simple purchase.

The flight from commodification will depend on how MaaS companies are able to build communities that activate the deep desires of Gen Z riders. We expect to see many more campaigns like Lyft’s discounted rides on Election Day in the United States.

Mobility subscriptions and rewards

Recurring revenue is predictable, and it lowers customer acquisition costs. In other words, investors love it. It is, therefore, no surprise that Lyft unveiled a simpler $20-a-month subscription dubbed Lyft Pink. Not only do riders get 15% off car rides, they also get priority pickups at airports. The hard part here is that, since Gen Z riders prefer uniqueness, their rewards from this plan must be personalized.

It turns out that this is a data science problem that requires MaaS companies to integrate their operational and experience data. They need to be able to identify, for example, if a rider likes to go to museums more than n times a month and posts favorably about the experience; in that case, it might make sense for the mobility provider to serve an offer that offers discounts on museums.

The caveat here is that credit card companies have learned that a rewards arms race can quickly endanger profitability. Bundling these highly targeted rewards with an appropriate subscription price point should be a significant focus for mobility companies.

Category expansion

Uber wants to own the verb “mobility” like Google owns “search” or Xerox owned “photocopy.” So it is a brand expansion play. When you need to transport anyone or anything, it wants to offer an Uber-branded mobility service that can move you or your freight from source to destination.

The unit economics in long-haul freight might be much better than those in urban mobility and a crucial factor in expanding to different mobility paradigms. The company has already started carrying passengers from lower Manhattan to JFK airport by helicopter. Uber freight is also an incredibly interesting proposition.

The challenge here will be to ensure that its IT systems have the global reach and scale to accurately capture the business realities of operating in so many categories. Since what gets measured poorly gets managed just as poorly, these companies risk false starts and dashed hopes if they expand without paying enough attention to their technical infrastructure.

Public-private partnerships

In an urban setting, mass transit is an inescapable reality. Any MaaS player will have to figure out how to seamlessly integrate into an existing web of multiple forms of transport, such as subways, light rail, and buses.

Put differently, it is not enough for MaaS companies to expand into different categories with the aim of pushing out their incumbents. The objective will be to work carefully with regulators at all levels of government to help figure out how ride hailing can play an important (and profitable) role in the wider world of consumer mobility options.

Data sharing to optimize urban congestion or on subways during rush hour is but one possibility that is unlocked when MaaS companies integrate themselves into this wider world. Uber has begun taking such steps in key markets like India, where it now displays public transportation information in its app. We expect to see many such deals by other players in this space in the next decade.

Do you agree with our predictions? Leave a comment below or tweet me @aswinMSAP to tell me what you think about the future of ride hailing.

Dive deeper into the future of MaaS on The Future of Mobility Unplugged on the Coffee Break with Game-Changers Podcast. 

Aswin Mannepalli

About Aswin Mannepalli

Aswin Mannepalli leads global industry marketing efforts at SAP with an emphasis on the automotive and industrial manufacturing sectors. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and lectures at the Wharton School. In his spare time, he enjoys learning Mandarin Chinese and swimming.