As the CEO of a high-tech transportation startup, one that’s trying to get rid of private car ownership, Sampo Hietanen has a surprising idol: Henry Ford.
“He introduced the dream of freedom of mobility,” said the Finnish entrepreneur, whose company, Maas Global (short for “mobility as a service”) is in the midst of rolling out a new app he believes can live up to a long-held vision of seamless urban transportation.
MaaS recently launched Whim, an app which helps knit together different urban transportation networks to create what they’re calling a single solution to urban mobility. Users open Whim, enter their destination, and pick from a number of potential options and routes, including buses, trains, taxis, bikes, and cars (the system currently connects with Sixt, a car-rental company, and is looking at integrating Uber and Lyft in the future).
What sets Whim apart is that planning and payment are all taken care of in a single app; via a monthly fee (249 Euros) or per-trip basis, users can chart their path through the city seamlessly without added guesswork, and make their way without payment hassles.
At a time when many city planners are working on integrating services such as Lyft and Uber to help solve their first mile/last mile problems, and building out bike shares and other sustainable transportation infrastructure to lower carbon emissions, a mobile service such as Whim helps make new options more accessible, all while reducing car ownership (and congestion).
“It’s not enlarging public transport, it’s bringing the dream of freedom of mobility to people,” proclaims Hietanen.
For all the attention Whim has received from publications such as The Economist, the app isn’t introducing a radical new technology to the road. It pulls travel information from APIs (application programming interfaces) set up by transport providers and public agencies, and uses other routing services to direct users, all utilizing pre-existing mobile networks. And other apps, cities, and developers are working towards similar products. Go LA, a Xerox-backed service in Los Angeles, offers the planning and a fraction of the payment options.
The innovation, according to Hietanen, is usability and vision. Whim functions as a mobility operator, connecting the transit ecosystem while focusing on the user experience. Transit companies can focus on services and schedules, while Whim connects different legs of a trip together.
“Everyone talks about multimodality, which is an underlying part of it,” says Hietanen. “But we want to provide a complete solution. If you don’t provide that it’s not living up to that dream. Look at car ownership. It’s not young people’s dream to own a car. They often feel forced to buy a car to have a good quality of life.”
Hietanen sees the marketplace aspect of Whim as one of its most appealing strengths, since no single player today can link together so many options while processing payments. When the app scales up, he also believes it can encourage more experimentation in the transport sector. New providers can join Whim and instantly have access to a new consumer base, which may allow more experimentation, as new transit solutions won’t have to develop an app or build an audience. The app also helps cities by providing expanded coverage for citizens without requiring the city to invest in mobile infrastructure.
After a year of development, MaaS recently launched a small test in Helsinki, and will slowly ramp up the customer base as it slowly iterates and improves, and irons out any issues that come from integrating with so many third-party service providers. Hietanen says they’re already looking at expanding to additional Finnish cities this year, and considering North American expansion for next year.