Sam Lorimer: MaaS mover and shaker
Self-described Disruptive Technologist – that’s actually his job title, too – Sam Lorimer works for an organisation you wouldn’t necessarily know houses a team of Smart Mobility Experts. (And no, his job isn’t to break things in tech). It’s IAG, Australia’s largest general insurer.
Sam is leading our Sydney CBD Mobility as a Service (MaaS) trial and specialises in IoT tech, machine learning, self-driving vehicles and other emerging technologies, building on a software project background in test automation, continuous integration as well as functional and technical design. He gets hands-on and cerebral with tech.
What are you working on now and what do you do?
I work at IAG as part of the Strategy & Innovation Team doing R&D. Our focus is to identify future opportunities for the business.
Often, we look outside of our core insurance products. We do that in research collaborations with academic partners, universities and CRCs like iMOVE, for example, to facilitate industry-academic relations and have access to some of the cutting-edge knowledge about what the future could look like.
And right now?
Right now, I’m working on a live MaaS trial in Sydney with the University of Sydney’s Institute for Transport and Logistics Studies (ITLS) and the tech start-up Skedgo. The project is run via iMOVE over two years with a six-month live component which we’re currently right in the middle of.
We’ve signed up 100 participants from across Sydney who are currently using an integrated app (based on Skedgo’s platform) called Tripi to plan, book and make a single payment each month for travel across a broad range of transport options. These options include Opal for public transport, Uber for ridesharing, any taxi services through CabCharge, GoGet for car sharing and Thrifty for hire cars for the longer term.
We’ve got a great mobility mix, even though we’d have loved to have had scooters or bike sharing, but couldn’t get those integrations over the line in time for the trial.
A subset of the participants who own a private vehicle are also using tracking tags, so we can see detailed information about their driving behaviours, which may change now they have access to the MaaS service. We also aim to explore the impact of subscription plans on the behaviour of participants, to help understand how these will need to be designed in future.
Being the first live trial in Australia across these modes, we also want to learn from the experience of participants and see how it impacts their views on owning a private car. Both MaaS and on-demand or subscription-based transport are key emerging trends in the way people’s travel habits are changing, so understanding their impact is a key reason for IAG participating in the research trial.
IAG’s role is as the MaaS broker and operator. We aim to make the experience as seamless as possible by managing the relationship with both the transport providers and the participants.
Meanwhile, the Tripi app routes participants in a multi-modal way across all the different services and provides them with a single view of every trip taken and their overall wallet balance, plus any subscription plans and incentives currently active. We don’t rely on participants opening the app for every journey though – they all have a trial Opal card, Uber, GoGet and Thrifty profiles and a digital Cabcharge card to get around as they wish.
Right now, this trial is pretty all-consuming for me at work.
What’s surprised you about this trial?
What surprised us and the participants was actually seeing a complete record of their traffic history in one place. People are used to having their Opal card silently recharging from one account and your Uber trips automatically paid with a credit card. Participants were asking ‘Do I really spend this much on my travel?!’. It was a wake-up call.
The app also allows people to check out other ways to get from A to B. One person discovered a new bus route to work they never knew existed and says they’ve saved so much time.
Via our partners at the Institute of Transport and Logistics Studies (ITLS), we’ve had interest in the trial from researchers in Switzerland and Sweden. They’ve been actively involved in some of the design and review, which has been amazing and has taught us an incredible amount. Those countries have far more traction with these types of MaaS services, and they’re excited by some of the unique features being tested during our Sydney trial.
How did you gravitate to working in the mobility field?
I’d classify myself as a relative newcomer. For the past three years, I’ve focused on mobility, but previously I was focused on tech and software projects. I fell into mobility through my research into connected devices and sensors in the smart home that provided ways of mitigating the risk of fire, theft and flood. This led to an interest in the sensor suites and machine learning being used in the automated vehicle field.
IAG has a long history of research into mobility, so we can see people’s travel changing over time and assess the emerging trends underlying this. MaaS was one of these. The link of an insurer being involved in MaaS might seem far-fetched, but a lot of the work we do through motor insurance is about putting people into alternative forms of transport when they’ve been involved in an accident.
We have existing relationships with car hire companies, taxis, and Uber so it was easy to transition those relationships and expertise into research in this area.
Where did you work prior to IAG?
I’ve been at IAG for four years and, for 12 years before that, I consulted on software projects, often in energy and utilities. I worked on smart metering and energy projects, which rolled out across Melbourne and Perth, and also in the financial sector.
And your studies?
I did an MBA at the Melbourne Business School and enjoyed applying my tech knowledge to business problems. Research and development is a great place to be – right at the cutting edge with influence over exciting future products and services.
In your field, what’s one transport project you’d undertake that would have a quick, appreciable impact? Firstly, with an unlimited timeframe and budget.
I mainly think in terms of research projects or experiments I’d love to know the outcomes of. I remain fascinated by an idea I read about on Brad Templeton’s blog (he was an early consultant for self-driving car companies like Waymo). It proposes that a city or urban area might make mandatory the use of a navigation service similar to Waze or Google Maps (and possibly built into these eventually). But it’s aim is to alleviate congestion in cities as a replacement for the way metering highway traffic (delaying on-ramps) and congestion charges do today.
A driver entering these areas must use this app for navigation, and as long as you followed the directions given about where you should drive to get to your destination, you minimise any charge. So, an operations centre for an urban area could dictate exactly how many traffic slots they’d like to allocate to each piece of road during each time period, and apply penalties for vehicles not adhering to their recommended route.
It’s a nice proxy for the future where vehicles are autonomous and able to be routed in this manner more efficiently. Even though a lot of drivers today act like robots following the directions of these apps, to mandate the use is a bit authoritarian, so I’m not suggesting a city would necessarily take it up commercially. I’d find it fascinating if a region or even a busy university campus might run it as a research project. Seeing what impact you could have on congestion via allocating these routes and journey start-times would be really interesting.
And same question, though this time with both the timeframe and budget smaller.
With a limited budget, I’d argue for more research into making driver monitoring systems (DMS) mandatory in Australia. They’ve done that in the European Union so all new vehicles sold will have to have certain automated safety features, including driver monitoring systems by 2022.
DMS constantly track whether drivers are inattentive, drowsy or even paying more attention to their phone than the road ahead (a huge and growing problem area). It’s a super interesting concept as our cars do more and more of the driving, yet the driver must still remain alert.
It will be very important to get the alert system right so it won’t be too frustrating for drivers, or too easy to disable or circumvent. Australian trucking companies are doing trials, but I’m not aware of it being terribly widespread in personal vehicles at this point.
To date, what work are you most proud of?
Definitely the MaaS project.
In the next three to five years, what in transport/smart city/etc technology are you most excited about?
Despite the hype dying down, I’m still quite excited about the progression of the automated vehicle. In the US, Waymo are taking members of the ‘pseudo’ public with no experience or association with the company on rides around on real streets with no safety driver.
I’d love to see some limited public deployment of ride hailing or shuttle services in Australia within three to five years. I’m referring to some which could drive at fairly normal speeds and blend reasonably well into suburban traffic as opposed to the more limited pilots undertaken to date – I’m hopeful.
I’m also excited by the continued expansion of the digital wallet. I’m used to misplacing all my things, but now I can just use my smartphone or watch to pay for transport and other services, and even unlock my house. This will only increase, and soon you’ll need only a phone to travel and transact and even unlock and drive your car.
What do you see as the biggest challenge to moving from a MaaS trial to a mass MaaS implementation?
That’s a million-dollar question. We haven’t finished the trial, but already we can see challenges. The biggest one is the business model for doing this sustainably. How would you do it in a way to cover costs if you really want to provide incentives for people to travel in a greener way?
We need to make it so convenient and compelling that people are willing to pay a surcharge on top of normal travel, or have it able to be subsidised in return for reducing congestion.
NSW, in particular, has some forward-thinking policies around progressing MaaS. To make it more viable, these need to span across states and be more harmonised around the regulations of sharing data and ticketing across all transport modes. MaaS should always be a complementary layer over the top with public transport at its core.
Finland coined the term MaaS and they have some pretty aggressive legislation making it mandatory for all forms of transport to share data back to the city and allow bookings and timetabling using machine-readable APIs. It makes the job of being a MaaS broker more standardised.
What’s more difficult – getting the ecosystem up or educating the public? Why?
I don’t think all the participants understood what the concept of MaaS was, even after the onboarding process where we explained it to them. It wasn’t until they started living and playing with it that they really saw what it could mean, and the convenience of that single place to see and manage all their travel.
Having a sustainable ecosystem with private and government providers working alongside each other is such a difficult task. The biggest challenge is just proving whether the MaaS model provides enough convenience, competition, societal benefit, and possibly even proof of reducing CO2 for the government to see it as something worth endorsing and regulating to make it happen. You have to show those benefits to then make it real for the public.