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What role will ride-sharing play in the post-Covid-19 era?

James Cox, CEO of MIT-born start-up Routable AI, talks to SmartCitiesWorld about future trends in the sector following the impact of the global pandemic. 

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James Cox joined the on-demand vehicle routing and management platform Routable AI in May at a critical time for the global ride-sharing industry and mass transit. The sectors are being buffeted by the Covid-19 pandemic as citizens of cities and countries under lockdown are simply taking fewer journeys.

 

Cox most recently served as the chief product officer at Canoo, a Los Angeles-based subscription company for electric cars. Prior to this, he served in a variety of senior product roles at Uber, including his most recent as global head of rider app product operations. He also led the global roll-out of uberPOOL, the company’s carpool service, to 41 cities within the USA, China, India and Europe.

 

As CEO of MIT-born start-up, Routable AI, he describes the ride-sharing industry “as ripe for innovation”. Routable’s algorithm was five years in research and its end-to-end solution targets the high-capacity mobility-as-a-service market.

 

He talks to SmartCitiesWorld about how ride-sharing and transit might look in the future.

 

SCW: What will be key to winning customers back to ride-sharing and removing any fear-factor from Covid-19?

 

JC: Firstly, most people have not lost trust in ride-sharing. Many use cases for ride-sharing have changed rather significantly in the short-term and this has impacted people taking ride-sharing. In some cases, this has meant more trips (for example, people taking private rides over public transit) and in some cases less (such as airport and commute trips as a whole).

 

That said, as we go back to the new normal, ride-sharing services will need to show customers that they are adhering to public safety standards or even going the extra mile to make riders feel safe. This includes things like requiring drivers and riders to wear masks and making users aware of cleaning practices. Companies like Uber and Routable AI are actually far better equipped to make these changes using technology than most of the transportation operators out there.

 

SCW: What major shifts will we see in transportation over the coming months?

 

As cities reopen, we’ll see more people requiring transportation for work and essential activities. These people need to get around but might not be ready to take public transportation again, if it’s even running normally where they live. This makes solo rides in on-demand vehicles the safest and most convenient option but unfortunately, also the most expensive and poor for congestion.

 

One trend we’ll see is a move of transit authorities and operators towards on-demand shuttles and buses. This move already existed pre Covid-19 but is more likely now given their increased costs, reduced demand, and inability to build the technology needed quickly enough. Routable AI is already helping a few transit authorities to model out the impact of things like capacity limitation on their fleets and can provide the technology to allow them to operate their buses and shuttles in an on-demand manner.

 

SCW: Countries and states and regions are at different stages of easing lockdown restrictions; what sort of challenge does that pose to a company like Routable AI?

 

This is ultimately a tremendous opportunity for Routable AI and others to support mass transit authorities during this period of transition. We have complex simulation tools, a fleet visualisation dashboard, and a proprietary routing API that can help cities transition to on-demand bus and shuttle systems.

 

Transit operators will remain in control of their fleet operations but we have the benefits of several years of research at MIT to tackle the harder routing problems in real time. The lack of this technology is why many shuttle/commute operators have failed over the years. This could include working together to establish ancillary on-demand car or shuttle services to replace fixed bus routes or subway routes that no longer make sense at all hours of the day due to significantly varied demand.

 

The challenge is ultimately in allowing people to share rides safely in these tough times. In places that are under more strict restrictions, it’s about making the rider experience safe first and foremost, and cost-efficient when compared to alternatives. This will include accounting for reduced capacity and cleaning time between rides in the routing algorithm, when applicable.

People need to get around but might not be ready to take public transportation again, if it’s even running normally where they live

Scaling a platform like Routable AIs to serve different communities always requires knowledge of the city’s typical demand, traffic patterns and user behaviours. To get this right in cities that are working with new restrictions, simulations will be required to identify the ideal number of vehicles (high-, medium- and low-capacity) and drivers needed to service demand and control costs. Luckily, our technology is built to handle these problems already so we are well equipped here to help.

 

SCW: How different will ride-sharing be in the post-Covid era?

 

JC: A major trend will be a move of transit authorities and operators towards on-demand shuttles and buses. Factors like high-cost, low-demand and inability to develop necessary technologies quickly will lead these entities to look very seriously at these services, which many were already considering pre Covid-19. Our technology allows for on-demand operation of buses and shuttles using existing operators -- we’re already helping a few transit authorities model out how their fleets will be impacted by factors like capacity limitation.

 

In the immediate future, I expect many other changes too. Social distancing regulations in many cities and countries have taken away the truly “shared” aspect of ride-sharing. Offerings which are designed to maximise rider capacity in an efficient manner won’t be available.

 

In addition to cleaning and safety changes, I would expect to see more ride-sharing companies working with transit authorities to offer on-demand services to fill in gaps where public transit routes are unavailable or running extremely reduced service. We’re also directly working with transit authorities and operators here so they can remain in control.

 

Separate from the rides aspect of ride-sharing, these companies will explore other revenue streams more heavily to make up for reduced demand in the core ride-sharing business. This includes food delivery, delivery of items to people who generally wish to stay inside more, and more investment in micro-mobility and I believe this will be favoured over shared rides by some people for some time.

 

SCW: Can you tell us about any cities you are currently working with?

 

JC: We’re currently working with several entities across the globe including two US public transit authorities as mentioned above. We’re also working with a ride-sharing shuttle service in South-East Asia, a ride-sharing shuttle app in Germany, and one of the largest Chinese ride-sharing companies on a shuttle app.

 

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