BERLIN – In a series of talks with inspirational mobility leaders, we are picking the brains of some of the most influential opinion-makers in the industry. We recently got the chance to talk to Eckart Diepenhorst, CEO of FREENOW. Together we talk about modernizing the taxi industry and adapting it to the new mobility paradigm arising in our cities.
FREENOW (formerly mytaxi) was founded in Hamburg in 2009, and since then has experienced phenomenal growth. You now have more than 14 million customers, operate in over 100 cities, and have about 100,000 drivers. How do you keep moving in a start-up speed when clearly you’re no longer one?
It’s worth pointing out that we are in a lucky position where we have very strategic investors, and we don’t need to put too much effort into external funding compared to other players. These investors recognize our speed and agility, two characteristics that we need to be successful. They are safeguarding us from the big corporate culture that is their own, and rather try to learn from us and add some of our culture into their businesses. Internally, we focus a lot on making sure that people are empowered to make decisions themselves.
It is well known that you want to revolutionize the taxi industry. How are you going to do it?
One of the challenges the taxi industry is facing today is having a lot of new ride-hailing companies entering the market. They have a lot of funding, and they are growing rapidly. Working with the highly regulated taxi industry, we cannot react on the pricing or number of licenses to shape supply like the market sometimes requires us to do.
Now, we need to offer a service that is leading towards more demand for the licensed taxi drivers. The most important strategy for me there is lobbying on public policy. We have to make sure that regulatory frameworks are changing for the better: to a more flexible and modern marketplace that is equal for all players.
Very early in the process of founding the company, it was a conscious decision to do things in line with the regulatory bodies, with the cities. Therefore, we decided to focus on licensed taxi drivers who were the only legal option to enter a market at that point. This has built a culture of trying to do things the right way. And this also applies for our new Private Hire Vehicle (PHV) service ride.
You have launched an e-scooter pilot, which is tested in Lisbon under the name hive. Will you continue to roll out in new cities?
Hive is now active in 13 European cities in 5 countries and has become a vertical of its own within the FREE NOW Group — so it is basically a sister company now. The plan is clearly to roll it out in further European cities in the future.
Can we then see this project as part of a broader strategy to integrate more micro-mobility options into your offer?
We think that mobility is going to change drastically over the next 10–20 years. There will be new modes of transportation that we can’t even imagine today. Today, we drive people in a car to get them from A to B. In 15 years, it could be a helicopter that is going to come and take you from C to D. Obviously people are starting to use other modes of transportation for first and last mile, rather than only the car. We cannot only continue to use individual modes of mobility, we need to shift towards shared ones.
You see yourself as an urban partner. And as a partner, how are you contributing to create more livable cities and make your offer more sustainable?
In what other ways are you using new technologies such as AI?
Today, we’re looking at three directions of how we can use data in a better way.
Another technology shaping the auto industry at the moment is autonomous vehicles. How are you thinking about self-driving vehicles? Do you see them as a threat to your business model, or more as a complement?
We see it as a fact. Autonomous driving is going to come, whether we like it or not. The best option we have is to embrace it. So, therefore, we don’t see it as a threat. We just see it as a change to our business model. We also believe that autonomous driving as a mass transportation mode is going to take at least five to 10 years. First, the technology is not prepared yet for bad weather conditions. Second, it will take a while to have the regulatory framework ready. We see it coming and take the time we need to prepare ourselves and our drivers. It is not a threat, it is a change.
Do you have any plans to integrate the city transportation network into your service?
No. I think there are some very professional players out there that are good at doing this. For us, it would be hard to change the structure of our technology on a city by city-level. That would be required if we integrated public transport into our app. What we do instead is get ready to integrate ourselves into cities’ aggregator apps. I believe we will be more successful if we slowly but surely build out the mobility product that we offer, instead of aiming to consolidate the entire mobility market with all its players.
Founded in 2013, Trafi is a Lithuanian tech start-up. Trafi is working shoulder-to-shoulder with cities, countries, and companies worldwide to create the best in class Mobility-as-a-Service alternative for congested cities. Trafi offers cities the possibility to connect all mobility services into one single platform where users can check itineraries and also book their tickets and trips.
Trafi’s mission is to empower cities’ urban transportation with technology and know-how and encourage citizens to use more sustainable modes of transportation by accessing all services into one single platform. Trafi is currently live in 4 continents around the world and 7 cities.