Interview with Nat Parker, CEO of moovel

ETW recently spoke with Nat Parker, CEO of moovel, a Daimler-owned company that is works with city agencies to expand residents’ mobility options by seamlessly connecting them with public transit, TNCs, bikeshare, and other modes of transportation.

The company has partnered with 17 transit agencies across the U.S. including TriMet in Portland, CTA and Pace in Chicago, and the Virginia Regional Express. Its moovel transit application allows riders to access trip planning resources, receive service alerts, and pay fares using their smartphone.

Its companion application, RideTap, provides riders with a full range of mobility options to bridge the first-last mile gap with rideshare, bikeshare, carshare, and local transit options.

(This interview has been edited and shortened for clarity.)

Could you tell us a little more about moovel and, more broadly, why an automaker like Daimler would invest its resources in an application that encourages other modes of transportation?

At our core, we’re really a start-up at one of the largest companies in the world, and we’re really rethinking what urban mobility and urban transportation looks like. Our thesis is that there is a long-term endgame that most OEMs and tech companies are pursuing where, ten years from now – potentially longer – fleets of autonomous vehicles service will be the predominant mode of transport across cities.

Breaking that down, and working backwards from that premise, basically led us to the conclusion that city governments and transit agencies are one of the most important stakeholders for facilitating this paradigm shift to autonomous fleet-level services.

After single-occupancy vehicles, public transit remains the fundamental core of how people get around congested areas. The ability for transit agencies to have eminent domain and right-of-way access certainly underground systems provides the most efficient routing of moving massive amounts of people. But on the fringe, outside of peak rush hour times, these are massively inefficient systems.

This is why we’re seeing a broad use of alternative transportation modes, like car-sharing and bike-sharing to augment fixed route regular service by public transport. But there’s also an increasing movement towards micro-transit, on-demand, shuttle-like services where dynamic routes are formed based on demand, rather than people walking every fifteen minutes to the same fixed bus stops.

What type of challenges are you currently helping cities to address?

First, we’re a product company that provides innovative mobile ticketing and routing solutions for public transit agencies. We come in and help solve the problem of “how do I buy a ticket?” and “how do my customers use my system?” – we demystify the process and simplify the transaction.

In doing so, we are able to reduce the cost of fare collection by up to fifty percent, relative to other sales channels like ticket vending machines, cash at the fair box, or going to a retail partner that sells the agency’s tickets.

You layer on top of that that these mobile devices probably provide an incredibly rich layer of data about how, when, and where people are using the system… we can provide a set of really dynamic reports of how service is operating and where inefficiencies may lie.

How does moovel work with agencies to address challenges like fare collection?

It’s really almost this consultative function where we help cities, policymakers and professional managers plan for the future.

If you think about it, public agencies and public officials are in many ways structurally ill-equipped to deal with such rapid change. They’re not incentivized to take risk, their procurement and contracting process is… anachronistic relative to the types of technologies and vendors that the agencies need to work with today. RFP and public tender processes were meant to procure switching stations, fixed-rail locomotives, as opposed to software and service.

There’s a lot that we’re doing in helping agencies understand what it’s going to take to be prepared, what kind of partners they need, what kind of tooling, what kind of processes they would have to institute.

For example, most cities and agencies are working through a waterfall of fixed deadlines and fixed date milestone-driven process; companies like moovel use contemporary agile process, and helping cities understand just how to work in this fashion is also equipping them for the sort of rapid technological change in the future.

How do you encourage cities to think outside of the box, rather than using traditional processes for procurement and executing projects?

First of all, our goal is to go in early. My team needs to be in listening to the challenges that a city is facing, doing the research, doing the homework, and understanding their specific operating environment.

You know, that’s the beauty of transit. [Former House Speaker] Tip O’Neill used to say that all politics is local… well, all transit is local, right?

We have to go in and have that on-the-ground intelligence. So we go out and ride the system, we talk to passengers, we look at the budgets, we look at the reports, we look at Twitter feeds, we understand what service issues and complaints are. Then we say, “Look, here’s what’s worked for us with other clients, here are some lessons learned.”

You mentioned preparing for autonomous vehicles as a priority for moovel… what role do you think you’ll play in this?

It’s really about preparing transit agencies for a future of autonomous services, and having more than one product company fill that gap.

Whereas Moovel itself has our own set of technologies we offer to cities, like Moovel Transit, we also serve as an aggregator. That’s an important and distinguishing feature about how we position ourselves in the market.

We have a technology called RideTap, where we are in fact aggregating Car2Go, Lyft, ZipCar, Uber, and other ride-provider technologies within the city apps that we build.

We’re not a company that only offers Moovel products –we’re not only offering Car2Go, our sister company in car-sharing. Instead, we want to become a platform that gives consumers choice. And that is so critical if you’re going to be working with government.

Because our go-to market strategy is always to be the technology partner-of-choice for cities and for governments, then it’s incumbent on us to come up with this sort of neutral playing field, to offer up multiple services.

As you can imagine, when we pitched that to our shareholders, it was a bit of a surprise. But by doing so, we become the go-to platform for the end user – and that’s what a lot of this arms race is really all about: who’s going to offer the best, most intuitive processed service?

Because a lot of the vehicles and mobility options will become commoditized, we want to have the best experience, the best data, the most intelligent sort of application out there.

Your career before moovel was largely focused on environmental issues. What was it that drove you to enter the mobility space?

The genesis of all of this is that, when I was a graduate student at Portland State University pursuing my MBA, I took transit every day to get to school downtown.

I kept seeing the same use case again and again and on the bus. You know, people fumbling for exact change… and if they’re riding the train, going to one of those old ticket vending machines that would just break down all the time. And we’re living in one of the rainiest cities in America.

Yeah, you’re getting rained on, you can’t get your damn ticket, the train is coming up, and people think, do I get on and risk getting a citation for fare evasion? Do I wait for the next train? What do I do?

This just coincided with the debut of smartphones back in 2007. I thought that there has to be an easier way to do this, and it occurred to me that mobile payment would just be a really phenomenal opportunity to change an everyday activity.

Was an application for mobile payments for transit your first idea?

Long story short, parking was the first idea: what if you could find your parking space and pay for it with your smartphone?

I came up with an idea called ParkingSherpa and approached the city of Portland. I met with the head of parking for the city to pitch him on the idea of mobile payment for parking. He said, “Nat, nobody here trusts mobile payment… and, by the way, we’re exceedingly pleased, exceedingly pleased with our smart meters here in our county.”

Although I was ultimately rejected for a parking service here in the city, I saw that public transit is the other perfect use-case. It’s really complex because there are so many layers to transportation that includes technology, public policy, socio-economic implications, demographics too.

I recently read an op-ed you wrote about your first time using public transit as a child and how much it inspired you. Does that still resonate with you?

I always love the fact that you ride public transit and you see every slice of society. At a time when we’re increasingly polarized with politics and money and haves and have-nots and so on, transit is still this interesting connective tissue for everyone. And in places like New York, even if you can pay to get a black car, it’s faster on the express train. So I don’t know, I find it really fascinating, and I think it’s one of those spaces where it really stands to change, not just kind of you know, what we do, what we take for granted every day but how we interact with one another.

Think about people who spend two hours a day commuting, or more. That’s lost time. And time is the most precious asset we have. What would you do with those two hours?

I think Moovel is right at the epicenter of this change, and with the backing of Daimler, the vehicle capabilities of Daimler, and our innovations around networked mobility, it’s still exciting.

Some experts have raised concerns that automated vehicles will actually increase congestion by making it even more convenient for people to ride alone in their cars. Given your background in environmental policy, do you think this is something we should be concerned about?

Suffice to say, we all will fail in delivering autonomous fleets that congest roads more, add more pollution, and create longer wait times for people – that’s just not going to work.

So we need to develop sophisticated algorithms to optimize AV fleets – essentially getting butts in chairs in the appropriate manner. That’s a big part of the data we generate even through mobile ticketing, and passenger transport on public transit today through moovel today – and it will be important for these fleets in the future.

Amassing the datasets and the telemetry – and using them to learn about consumer behavior – can better optimize those fleets in the future. It can help answer the question of where networks of vehicles should be waiting, and at what times of the day. I think that we’re preparing for that.

What’s next for moovel?

We recently launched FareConnect. It’s meant to disrupt the traditional business model within automated fare collection in public transportation – which is currently dominated by a handful of very large systems integration companies, like Cubic or Xerox. They offer a closed-loop, proprietary approach to how to do ticketing. It’s their hardware, it’s their software, and if you want any change it requires a million-dollar change order. Cities found themselves marooned in an island of stifled innovation and non-competitive practices.

FareConnect is essentially a way of disrupting that closed loop. With our technology, transit agencies are able to be hardware-agnostic as they implement ticketing and fare collection solutions. In other words, they can embed our FareConnect software onto any third party applicator where riders tap their phones or smartcards – so they’re basically freed up.

Transit agencies are able to save money that way, which is something that we’re very proud of. We see smartcard systems evolving into fully contactless smartphone systems or device systems. In the future, people won’t need to carry a smartcard, but rather tap their iPhone or their Android against the validator to get in and out of the bus or to get through a gate.

Do any transit agencies currently use FareConnect?

Yes, we’ve now launched in Orange County Transportation Authority across five hundred buses.

It’s really a new standard in the industry for enabling contactless ticketing in a way that is not just a one-stop shop. Instead, we can plug and play and provide interoperability for a city – and that’s in the public’s best interest.

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