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Upwardly Mobile: Europe’s Mobility Revolution

· March 19, 2015

We in Europe know that petrol (gas) prices are usually double that of the United States. Vehicle ownership can overall cost you EUR10,000 annually. All this makes transport systems ripe for disruption in the digital era. Throw in ongoing high unemployment and economic uncertainty, and the enablers of disruption – like  collaborative consumption – have shifted from nice idea to necessity for many.

It is this sharing economy that has fuelled increasing disruption in the field of mobility. Until recently mobility had been enhanced by services like apps for maps and transit timetables, but was yet to be truly disrupted as media, music and travel bookings have been.

Now digital innovation and the competition it fuels is coming thick and fast. There are hundreds of taxi apps alone, offering their platform to consumers for free. The lack of lock-in has been a consumer boon: the apps have to impress immediately or the customer will ditch them. Which is about as far away from the old taxi cartels as can be imagined.

But are Uber-headlined fights with legacy systems and regulators the full story? Is the US the source of the best innovations? I would say no. In hindsight, 2014 was the year that a diverse range of European innovators started to reach critical mass at home and achieve major expansion globally.

While the tech media focuses on the battle between Lyft and Uber for venture capital and global reach, the Europeans have been multiplying in their number and scale too. There are aggregators like taxi.eu and Estonia’s Taxify, while others like the UK’s Addison Lee and France’s BlaBlaCar are inventing whole new mobility markets, and achieving global reach.

BlaBlaCar operates in 18 countries – including India and the United States. Claiming to save 50-90% on train journey costs, the service bills itself as the world’s largest ride-sharing network and disrupts not only taxis but long-distance buses, trains and to a certain extent your local car dealership.

Could it be that 40-year-old European “mini-cab” player Addison Lee is aiming highest when it comes to disruptive mobility services?

Driven on by the deep pockets of owners Carlyle Group, Addison Lee has exploded this month into the New York City cab market. They are taking the first step towards what CEO Liam Griffin says will be the first “truly integrated global network of ground transport providers” (they also offer ambitious partnerships like connecting premium cab services to private jet bookings.)

Yet it would be mistake to think that AL’s way of disrupting the market as being based on a huge cash injection, a single idea, or a treasured old brand. In reality, recent 30% year-on-year growth is the fruit of a decade pursuing multi-strand digital investments. AL has built what amounts to a surround-sound approach to the art of disruption.

In their latest New York move, they aren’t trying to become just another of hundreds of competitors. They are acting as the digitally-enabled middleman: taking a commission when customers book a local taxi through their software.

There other strategic choices at play too. AL is eschewing innovation on questions like price models (no surge pricing here!). In backlash-free surroundings that choice creates, they are sweeping up some of the more conservative (and lucrative) parts of the market like corporates who are willing to pay for the combination of a consistent price and luxury level of service.

That doesn’t mean AL aren’t pioneers: they got into the app race early, in 2009. But they were also patient, allowing themselves five years to build to a 50% rate of bookings through mobile devices. That pace may be too slow for some, but it’s kept regulators and their customer base along for the journey. “We’ve had 40 years to understand this business,” AL’s CTO Peter Ingram told London’s Daily Telegraph. They wanted disruption built on a trusted service. The strategy for competitive advantage is disruption with ‘peace of mind.’

The hard competitive advantage comes from excelling at using technology to remove waste. “Technology unlocks the idling capacity — that could be the spare room in someone’s house, the spare seats in someone’s car,” explains sharing expert Rachel Botsman. In practical terms for AL, “our technology means that we are saving our drivers 18,000 dead miles a day,” says Peter Ingram.

At the heart of the AL system is a UK software firm: Haulmont Technology, who deliver the company’s proprietary IT platform Shamrock, a Java-based system that covers everything from mobile websites to call centre automation, job allocation and driver SMS alerts.

AL also worked with Sabio to increase their call centre efficiency by 30% – . disrupting their own model instead of junking it for app-only bookings. Proprietary scheduling software has driven down their staff costs and reduced carbon emissions by 20%, and they’ve leapt at the advantages of Software-Defined Networking but stuck with “mature thoroughbreds” as partners.

Why this diverse surge of innovation in Europe? AL and their competitors are tapping a huge customer and policy demand. Europe’s aging population and shrinking fiscal capacity is pushing a lot of innovation in mobility. For example, this week union of public transporter operators and suppliers, UITP, has done their bit to ‘grow the pie’ by pushing the European Citizens’ Mobility Forum to propose an action programme to EU policy decision-makers aimed at doubling the use of collective land passenger transport in the EU by 2025.

Europeans have long understood that mobility is key to overall economic success. From London’s journey as the first (above and below ground) railway city to world city more than a century again, to cities like Stockholm and countries like Switzerland, where robust mobility systems have long been a hall-mark of fame, and driver of growth.

Now Europeans are starting to integrate that policy mood music with the mobile revolution, which is beginning to drive the mobility revolution. In other words, watch out. Europeans might be choosing a different route, shaped by the preferences of their home markets. But they are headed to the same digital destination as US mobility innovators. And want to get there first.

Competition

Some, if not all of society’s most useful innovations are the byproduct of competition. In fact, although it may sound counterintuitive, innovation often flourishes when an incumbent is threatened by a new entrant because the threat of losing users to the competition drives product improvement. The Internet and the products and companies it has enabled are no exception; companies need to constantly stay on their toes, as the next startup is ready to knock them down with a better product.