REAL-TIME RIDESHARING TRANSFORMS URBAN TRANSPORT
Oren Shoval and Daniel Ramot are the founders of Via. Via is a privately held American transportation network and real-time ridesharing company based in New York. Via’s mobile-phone application facilitates group travel in cities for a flat rate and is gaining increasing popularity around the globe. Via recently signed a strategic partnership with Mercedes Benz to launch the Via service with cities in Europe.
After gaining your degree in Electrical Engineering you studied Systems Biology for your PhD at the Weizmann Institute of Science. Why?
Because it was extremely interesting. I was in a lab with an amazing professor, Uri Alon. He is a prominent scientist. He taught me how to think, how to take a very complex problem and find ways to analyze it and think about it, and always to look for the simple solution.
Did it work for you?
I enjoyed it a lot and was successful in my research. My main research focus was the evolution of trade-offs. How to balance what happens if you are very good at one thing and not very good at another. An example is when you look at the feet of birds. Some walk, and their feet look like human feet. Some live in trees, and their feet look like human hands. What happens if half the time they walk and half the time they are in the tree? What does the foot look like then? It looks like a combination of the two. We found simple principles that show how the diversity of evolution can be explained by trade-offs. To find the balance between competing groups we used concepts from the Italian philosopher Vilfredo Pareto.
“Buses today have fixed schedules and itineraries, but we want to adapt to traffic jams in real-time.”
Via Services in New York City
How come you started Via with Daniel Ramot?
He and I are close friends since we were 18. We were in the same military unit in Israel called Talpiot, focused on training and defense technology. It is a small group and for three years we studied at the Hebrew University: computer science, physics and mathematics. We worked together as engineers, to design and develop technological systems for the air force. When I graduated from my PhD I was sitting in a sherut (shared taxi) in Tel Aviv, sorts of vans that are like a bus but they can pick you up and drop you off any place. This was five years ago, and I thought: Why don’t these vans talk to each other? We can take a thousand vans, make them talk to each other and have a system manage these vans. I called Daniel, who had been living in New York for several years, and together we started a system of dynamic shuttles.
What does that mean?
Imagine a network of shuttles. The schedule and the itinerary are computed in real-time, every second. Buses today have fixed schedules and itineraries, but we want to adapt to traffic jams in real-time. If there is traffic they can go around it. We want to adapt to where people are and where they want to go. We want to use the flexibility of a system to provide a much better service to people who want to move around in a city.
Why is it not like Uber or a taxi?
What we have built is Via. It is a dynamic shuttle operating system for public transit. We are a technological company and we have software that can be used by cities to operate a new generation of public transportation, which we use data to optimize.
“With a very simple app you put in where you want to go, and within a few minutes a van will pick you up.”
How does it work for the user?
With a very simple app you put in where you want to go, and within a few minutes a van will pick you up at a nearby corner. The vehicle will take you to your destination, or a block or two from it, and you get a seat. On the way, other people are dropped off and picked up. Via matches up with people who are headed in the same direction, and is very convenient. It is important to understand that we have central optimization software which matches people to vehicles in real-time and computes the routing. It looks at the city as a whole system.
Where has Via already been adopted?
We are working in many cities, for example New York City, Paris, Chicago, Washington D.C.. We have just launched in New Zealand, and will soon be in many more locations.
How many vehicles do you operate in New York City?
In New York there are a few thousand vehicles that belong to drivers who follow a navigation app that we designed. In Paris we have licensed our technology to a company owned by SNCF, the French railway, called ‘Le Cab’. In Austin, Texas we licensed the technology to the city, and the city operates it.
Are you trying to expand your system all over the world?
We believe that it is how people should move in cities. One vehicle just for you is not a good thing. Traffic is one of the biggest problems that cities face.
Don’t subways and underground transit systems help a lot?
Subways are very convenient; however the infrastructure costs tens of billions of dollars. Because it is so expensive very few places have a good subway, and even in cities with a good system there is still a lot of traffic. As I said, the subway system is good, but it is limited by the extremely high cost of infrastructure. In a big city you need the underground, but it’s not sufficient and it is more expensive than a bus.
Will cars soon not have drivers anymore?
I think that the future is coming sooner than we expect, and with our mobilitating system we are fully ready for that future, because our software manages every vehicle in real-time today, and it could also navigate the driverless vehicle. In Manhattan our prices start at five dollars a ride.
Traffic jam in Bangkok
Via co-founders Daniel Ramot and Oren Shoval with Volker Momhinweng, head of Mercedes
Berliner Verkehrsbetriebe (BVG) and ViaVan, a joint venture between Mercedes-
“Very recently we signed a strategic partnership with Mercedes Benz to launch the Via service with cities in Europe.”
How quickly are your services provided?
Pick up is between five and six minutes, and you can book in advance.
What is your next step?
Our main goal is to help cities transition to the next generation of public transportation. We would love to do so in countries like Italy, England, and everywhere else. Our company is based in New York City, and I lead the engineering team of about a hundred people, software engineers and algorithm researchers. At the moment we are focused on making Via as successful as possible. Very recently there has been a shift, as cities start to understand that they can invest taxpayers’ money into model software solutions like Via and provide much better mobility services to their citizens.
Who are your competitors?
Our biggest competitor is the private car. It is what we compete with. Private cars are a thing of the past in the city. Cities should not allow the use of private cars, and can provide good mobility using Via.
Have you left your biology studies behind?
For the moment I have left my biology research, because I think that Via is a once in a lifetime opportunity. Very recently we signed a strategic partnership with Mercedes Benz to launch the Via service with cities in Europe.
Do you still consider Via to be a start-up?
Yes, we do.
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