I'm running late for dinner in Hamburg, Germany, with no time to walk or take the bus. Time to fire up aapp.
But rather than Uber or Lyft, I quickly open an app called Moia. It tells me to cross the street and my driver will arrive in nine minutes. Right on time, a big, golden van pulls up in front of me, and the side door opens. "Shara?" the driver says as I take a seat in a sleek cream-colored seat and take in my surroundings.
The roomy interior is softly lit by white lights on the ceiling, almost making it feel like the vehicle has no roof. I lean back against the wide headrest that shelters my face from the other rider in the vehicle. A monitor hanging in front of me says I'll be at my destination in 15 minutes, right after we drop off my fellow passenger and pick up another.
While this sounds like a normal -- albeit premium -- shared ride service, Moia, which launched in Hanover in July 2018 and expanded into Hamburg six months ago, is run by Volkswagen.
Moia is just one of several new services that have emerged over the past few years to tap into demand for environmentally friendly and comfortable transportation. Its rival, CleverShuttle operates in six German cities, though it recently left three others, including Hamburg. UFODrive started 18 months ago in Luxembourg to give people an option for quickly renting electric vehicles through a smartphone app, and numerous scooter and biking companies -- from Bird to Uber's Jump -- have all but taken over cities across the globe.
In many ways, Moia resembles an Uber Pool or Lyft Line shared ride: I hail a vehicle through an app, setting my pickup location and destination. The app sends me the offered price for the ride, gives me an estimated arrival time, and tells me where and when to meet my driver.
That's where the similarities end. Unlike Uber and Lyft, whose drivers are independent contractors, Moia drivers are employed by VW, and its vehicles are specially designed VW electric vans. Each van seats six passengers and offers free Wi-Fi and USB charging ports -- all luxuries compared with most Uber and Lyft rides, which typically are in drivers' personal cars. The individual plush seats give each rider space, and the wraparound headrests cancel noise.
"On-demand mobility services are often too expensive for everyday use, and current ride-hailing solutions for sharing aren't optimal because personal space is compromised," said Brian Solis, an independent digital analyst at his own firm. "This creates an opportunity for ride-sharing services that solve for the 'last mile' or 'last kilometer.'"
On Moia, you might be sharing a ride with five other people, but you somehow feel like you're alone. That's the point.
"The idea is to compete with a privately owned car," Moia spokesman Christoph Ziegenmeyer said.
Moia isn't the only company wanting to serve the "last mile" of transportation using pooled rides in EVs. In Berlin, US-based Via has partnered with the city's public transit operator on its BerlKönig ride-share service. And Deutsche Bahn, Germany's rail operator, has invested in Berlin startup CleverShuttle.
Like Moia, CleverShuttle owns all of its cars and employs its drivers full time with benefits like health insurance and paid vacation. But unlike Moia, its vehicles aren't specially designed for the company. Instead, CleverShuttle buys vehicles like the Nissan Evalia, and it even operates some hydrogen fuel-cell-powered cars like the Toyota Mirai.
Instead of making you walk to a designated meeting spot, CleverShuttle will pick you up from your starting point and drop you off directly at your destination. It has 1,400 drivers and operates 350 vehicles. It would have even more cars if national law allowed (Germany has strict ride-sharing laws and regulations for drivers) -- and if it could actually get them from automakers.
"It's difficult to get more electric cars," CleverShuttle spokesman Fabio Adlassnigg said. "Everyone wants them now."
Taking a CleverShuttle ride feels more like taking an Uber Pool (there are no fancy ceiling lights or headrests), but all drivers have passed German government driver requirements. That includes psychological, medical and background security checks.
Each vehicle typically covers between 500km to 700km (311 miles to 435 miles) a day and has to charge three to five times, Adlassnigg said.
CleverShuttle is available in Berlin, Dresden, Dusseldorf, Kiel, Leipzig and Munich. But it also has retreated from some markets because of car limits.
It gave up on Frankfurt after negotiating over a license for a year, and it left Stuttgart because its license allowed it to operate only 10 cars, not nearly enough to turn a profit. In Hamburg, CleverShuttle was "welcomed with really open arms," Adlassnigg said. But it could only operate 50 cars, about half the amount Moia was initially granted. That wasn't enough to help it compete with other transit companies that offered lower fares.
"Uber will always be the cheaper one, and Uber will always be the faster one," Adlassnigg said.
"We decided to concentrate on cities [where the CleverShuttle service was] running way better."
While CleverShuttle has no plans to go to the US or other competitive markets, the company's eyeing other areas like Austria, Switzerland, Morocco and some Asian cities.
Next year, CleverShuttle will appear as an option in Deutsche Bahn's DBNavigator app, which sells tickets for German trains and other public transportation. Passengers will be able to book CleverShuttle rides directly in the app early in 2020, and by the summer, add CleverShuttle services as part of their ticket for an entire journey that includes trains, buses and other transit.
"The idea is, you're booking a ticket at Deutsche Bahn, you're booking a ticket from door to door," Adlassnigg said. "You get picked up by CleverShuttle, it takes you to the railway station, you jump on the train and when you arrive in say, Munich, a CleverShuttle is waiting at the station. You don't need to book it or take out your mobile phone. You just jump in your CleverShuttle and get to your address."
Moia's posh service
Unlike CleverShuttle, Moia won't pick you up at your front door or drop you off at your destination. You'll have to walk to stops set by Moia, but they won't be farther than 250 meters (820 feet) away.
By encouraging people to share rides, VW hopes to remove 1 million cars from the road by 2025 -- an odd goal for an automaker. The service is available only in certain parts of the cities it operates in and may stop for a few hours depending on the day. In Hamburg, for example, it the service runs nonstop from Thursday to Sunday morning but breaks in the early hours on other days.
The fare, based on different parameters like distance, day and time of day, is set to fall between the cost of public transportation and a taxi. The app tells you what your full price will be before you book, so you won't have any surprise charges.
"Services like Moia promise on-demand convenience, personal comfort and space, lower prices and a pleasant transportation experience," Solis said. "They are also green, adding a layer of additional value to the consumer knowing they are helping the planet and alleviating traffic on the roads."
Whether that pays off for Moia and VW remains to be seen. In the first six months in Hamburg, Moia signed up 260,000 customers and operated 770,000 rides. By November, it had doubled its number of vans from the initial 100 allotted by the city, and it plans to expand to 500 vans next year. And the number of users is steadily increasing, Ziegenmeyer said. Moia wants to expand beyond its current Hamburg footprint to eventually cover the entire city (Hamburg will consider the request in January 2021).
Moia is also starting a new trial in London, and it's in talks with other German and international cities -- including some in North America, though Ziegenmeyer wouldn't specify which ones.
Fifteen minutes after I get in my first Moia, I've arrived at my destination, right on time.
My first ride with Moia goes so smoothly, I'm ready to give it another shot after dinner ends. I launch the Moia app, ready for my ride home -- but I'm going to have to find another route. The app tells me "Sorry, there is no MOIA available that meets your requirements. Please try again later." So instead, I jump on a scooter and head home.
This article was written as part of the Goethe-Institut's Close-Up journalists' exchange program and Wunderbar Together-The Year of German-American Friendship. More information can be found at www.goethe.de/nahaufnahme and at #GoetheCloseUp and #WunderbarTogether.