Danny Wesley

journalist, tech entrepreneur

[Interview] How Technology Is Reshaping Transportation: Trends and Challenges

Why will more people switch to cars as their choice of transportation? When will all vehicles become self-driving? I had the opportunity to sit down and talk about these issues in greater detail with Alexander Sapov, the CEO of GetTransfer.com, one of the biggest airport-to-city transfer providers.
What are the main travel industry trends, and what are the most important things happening right now in ground transportation?
The most significant trend affecting travel right now is the emergence of bundling - offering clients multiple services at a discount within a single ecosystem. Travel perfectly fits this model. Think of Amazon, Rakuten or Alibaba, and other tech giants, that can add almost everything to their ecosystem, including travel-related services and products.
Nowadays, several European countries are actively promoting the idea of switching from pricey and not-so-ecologically-friendly airplanes to ground transportation methods with less harmful emissions. So, the ground transportation market is expected to grow actively.  
Safety is a huge issue. Please give some insights into how you protect your passengers. How is technology help you to do it?
We've built a comprehensive scoring system that combines automatic and manual assessment of individual drivers and partners with fleet cars. 
We have high standards in this sense, so if the partner/driver has little experience or lacks some crucial documents, it is unlikely we will approve him. For new partners, we also conduct an interview with a real person to ask all critical questions. In the beginning, all drivers work in a test mode, when we follow their metrics and reviews very carefully. After a specific number of rides with good reviews and no registered problems, the driver gets access to a larger pool of potential customers.
Scoring systems that combine automated algorithms and human assessment are the most effective tool for selecting the best drivers. Also, insurance and other traditional tools like common sense are helpful for increasing safety.
How do you select high-quality drivers? What is your strategy here?
First of all, we give them freedom. Our driver can see a hundred requests for a ride in a day and ignore them all. We do not push them to work 24/7. At GetTransfer.com, they can also earn more, as we do not compete with traditional on-demand taxi apps, and work with scheduled rides. Our driver app has good UX, which is essential for some partners. 
All of these factors lead to higher driver satisfaction and lower staff turnover. We have drivers who have worked with us for 3+ years, which is very rare for taxi-like companies.
Given all these factors, we do not use any marketing tactics targeted at attracting new drivers. Only word-of-mouth. We have a queue of applications from drivers/partners we can choose from. 
By the way, are there any electric cars in your fleet? Are there any plans on expanding this number?
We have several regions where users can get a ride in a Tesla electric car, sure. Right now, we are working on a program for expanding the number of electric vehicles we offer. We also want to encourage our customers to book rides in cars with lower emissions (a certain amount of money from a trip will be sent to support eco-initiatives in different countries). Electric cars are an important part of this effort. 
How are companies like yours reshaping transportation? How will we move between airports and destinations in new cities in a couple of years/in ten years?
We believe that the process of ground transportation will become more predictable as has already happened with, say, air flights and hotels. Users understand that it is essential to book these things in advance to get the best experience and most affordable price, no matter if it is a vacation or a business trip. 
Car transfers are no different here. If you book in advance, you can select a better car, require special  options, and get an excellent service – our driver can pick you up at arrivals holding a card with your name on it and get you to your destination fast. 
For example, one of the first routes GetTransfer.com offered to passengers was a transfer from Geneva airport to the Courchevel resort. At that time, you could book a minivan for several people right at the airport, which would cost $780-900 minimum, while a scheduled trip via our app is around just $250. So, the longer the ride, the better the savings the scheduled model can deliver. People do not like to overpay.
From a passenger point of view, what is the safest, cheapest and most convenient way to get to a required destination in a new city? Give us some advice and life hacks about how to avoid problems.
In my opinion, the best thing you can do is book all the parts of your trip in advance. For the car ride from the airport to the city, this will get you the lowest price possible, excellent service (no need to move around with luggage while looking for a car), and a more predictable (in a good way!) experience (in our app you can see a real picture of the vehicle you will ride in). 
Also, when you are booking through a platform, you can be sure all drivers have gone through a scoring system, with only the best cleared to drive.  
I'd like to talk about self-driving cars. What are your feelings toward this concept? Do you believe we will see them up and running and carrying passengers any time soon? If yes, how exactly will this look?
I believe this is an up-and-coming segment. For sure, self-driving technologies will continue to emerge: we will see more real-life examples of them very soon. However, I do not think the impact of this tech will be immediately evident, and it won’t be as significant as the media picture it now. 
For example, if we take our segment of airport-to-city transportation, self-driving cars are unlikely to get there any time soon. These types of rides (coming to a new city and getting your first impression of a new place while driving to a hotel) are always too personal. The driver is your first impression and can be your guide, giving some advice on where to go and what to experience. You do not want to replace humans with a robot here. 
However, commercial rides like truck freight deliveries have no such personalization requirements, and here self-driving cars have perfect potential. But at the same time, humans will be the best drivers for humans for many years to come.
Apart from electric cars, are there any other exciting technology developments? For example, will hydrogen-powered vehicles play a more or less important role in the travel market?
Electric vehicles are becoming more and more popular, as these types of cars can form a real alternative to traditional ones. However, it is not the only alternative. Another trend is the growing number of hydrogen-based vehicles. They have some significant advantages: they are eco-friendly, and unlike regular cars that run on gas, there are almost infinite stocks of components for hydrogen generation. 
Hydrogen-powered cars are already in production. Toyota, Honda, Mazda, Hyundai, BMW, Audi, and other brands have such vehicles in their line-up. By the end of 2018, about 10,000 hydrogen cars were in operation around the world. However, most of these vehicles cannot be called pure hydrogen cars. They are different variations of hybrids, for example, gasoline-hydrogen and electricity-hydrogen. 
There are already countries like Japan where public transportation relies heavily on hydrogen-based vehicles. We believe that this type of transportation will continue to develop. And there will be more and more high-quality cars with an H2 mark. 
There is a lot of speculation about millions of drivers losing their jobs due to self-driving cars. Will your company follow this trend or not? What is your view on labor market trends, and how might these drivers stay in the industry?
There will be more and more self-driving cars each year. But such vehicles are suitable for specific conditions only. For example, autopilot can be the right choice for a car running the same route in a closed area. But when we talk about airport-to-city transportation, these solutions just can't be used as easily . First of all, there are many routes, and these can be hard to navigate, involving going through densely populated areas or even pedestrian zones. 
Secondly, when you come to a new city, your cab driver can be your first guide, answering questions or giving advice on what to see and where to go. The average trip length in a city taxi is around 7 minutes, while the transfer from the airport takes 40 minutes on average. And communication with a driver is an emotional partwhich creates your first experience of travel - an essential part of a transfer service, which is impossible to emulate by using robots.
Speaking of ecology, what are the main "green" developments in the travel industry dedicated to CO2 offsetting?
Airlines have long been implementing CO2 compensation initiatives. Usually, these feature the collection of an additional fee from passengers willing to participate in a program. The collected funds are then transferred to partnering organizations, specializing in implementing emission-reducing and energy-saving solutions.
We at GetTransfer.com are running an eco-friendly initiative as well. Passengers that are willing to participate can make voluntary environmental contributions while booking their transfer. 
Will long distance transfers be dominated by airport-to-city transfers and still mainly use cars, or will we see more air taxis anytime soon? What do you see the future of air transportation to be in the current conditions? 
I don't think the air taxi market will expand its share in the near future. Actually, for a company like ours, there is no significant difference in what particular vehicle is used. We just need a "transportation tool" that can be booked by a traveler.
However, for airport-to-city transfers, helicopters are not that suitable. Few people know this, but the luggage of travelers using air taxis to the city is still delivered by car due to the limited load capacity of small flying machines. In upcoming years there won't be any commercially successful way to replace car transfers for long-distance rides.
How will the ground travel market segment look in three-to-five years? Will corporations like Hotelbeds acquire the most innovative providers and dominate, or will it be more fragmented?
There is a huge worldwide demand for transportation services. Companies like ours are growing. Another critical trend is bundling. Travelers like to get all their required services in one place: booking flights, insurance, hotel, and transfer. The more comfortable it is to form such a bundle, the happier the customer will be, as it saves time and effort. 
So, it is no surprise that big corporations are interested in acquiring promising startups, and smaller companies are collaborating to deliver a better experience for users. It is hard to say what business model will dominate the market, for the next few years will see all of them developing. We will definitely see mergers and acquisitions very soon in travel mobility and leaders in the travel market sector will start providing more evident transportation solutions to their customers.

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