Of the many upsides that come with using ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft, few are as sweet as the knowledge that, even when you arrive in a city you don’t know, you’ve got an app in your pocket that will find you a driver, who will find their way to you, then take you to your destination. No more puzzling over transit maps, interrogating unhelpful bus drivers, or negotiating with taxi drivers.
What’s convenient for you, though, isn’t so great for the local movers and takers of people. The public transit systems and small taxi services lose their chance at potential fares. And in the long run, it might not be so great for you either, as Lyft, Uber, and their ilk ultimately take control of the market, and maybe even find themselves free to set whatever prices they like.
Liad Itzhak wants to challenge that hegemony by giving the little guys a chance. “I don’t think the public wants [Uber and Lyft to have] a monopoly on this market and our ability to move around,” he says. The transportation vendors being knocked out by ride-hail services certainly want a way back into the ring. So he has built his own service to fight back. Itzhak is the head of HERE Mobility, an 18-month-old unit of the mapping company HERE (jointly owned by BMW, Audi, and Daimler) that today announced the launch of an app called SoMo. That’s for “social mobility,” and it’s what Itzhak calls an “open global neutral mobility marketplace,” which is a wordy way of saying, an effort to pull together pretty much every way of getting around that isn’t a ride-hail service. It’s also a way for HERE to move into a mobility market Itzhak says is already worth $250 billion, and growing more than 30 percent year over year.
The main idea of SoMo is to give all the transportation businesses that have been pummeled by Uber and Lyft a common platform, in the hopes that if a rider knows this app can help them pretty much anywhere they go, it’ll be worth downloading. Most of these companies operate taxis, but but the app’s not limited to four-wheelers, not in this new age of mobility. All are welcome to add themselves to the platform, no matter how they move people, Itzhak says. “Helicopters, boats, you name it.”
So, when a user wants to go somewhere, the app offers a variety of ways to get there. Most of the time it will be a standard cab, but you might see a boat taxi in Miami, or even public transit. If you settle on a private provider, the app connects you, and HERE takes a cut of the fare. Itzhak declined to specify a figure, but says the percentage is in the single digits.
Since it started work last year, Itzhak says, HERE has signed 1.4 million vehicles onto the platform in more than 350 cities around the world, and will bring them online bit by bit. At launch, it’s starting with 15 cities, including London, Amsterdam, New Orleans, and Los Angeles. It plans to add five to 10 every month for the rest of the year. To pull in users, HERE is partnering with the likes of airline Eurowings and Hostelling International, which will encourage their customers to use the app. Word of mouth should help, too, Itzhak says.
The thing is, the convenience of the app isn’t the only thing that has led users to ride-hail services like Uber, Lyft, Didi, Grab, and Careem. Those companies, as Itzhak says himself, have become dominant by spending huge amounts of venture capital to subsidize rides and entice drivers. And while Uber in particular may have an image problem, cab drivers were never exactly beloved figures. There’s no reason to think a good app is enough to send riders flocking back to conventional cabs if that price gap stays in place and the services are effectively the same.
If that’s not enough then, to set HERE’s effort apart, the social bit of the phrase “social mobility” might do the trick. The app will also connect travelers with drivers who aren’t looking to get paid. Using its carpool feature, users can create and join groups based on where they are and where they’re going, either for a one-time trip or a regular ride. Say you’re getting married in the Malibu hills, and want to get all your guests from LAX or anywhere else to the venue without making them all rent cars or drive by themselves. Just create a group in SoMo, spread the word, and let them organize themselves more efficiently. It’s a lot easier than trying to organize everyone in a messaging service like WhatsApp, Itzhak argues, and for him, it has the bonus of getting the app onto people’s phones.
So the next time you touch down in a foreign city, know that you don’t have to rely on Uber or Lyft. If you’re looking for another way around, you can turn to HERE for help getting there. Or, you know, indulge your sense of adventure and find your own way.