Hailing a vehicle by app and sharing it with other passengers is now a common thing in London or New York, where Uber, Lyft or Via offer on-demand rides. In Germany, however, these services have been far more difficult to establish due to regulations that prohibit unlicensed drivers from offering public transportation. It led to a German ban on Uber’s basic ride-hailing service, although its professional taxi services remain in operation.
Daimler, maker of Mercedes-Benz and Smart cars, is stepping into this void by teaming up with Berlin’s public transport authority BVG, and Via, a New York-based specialist for on-demand ride-sharing services. ViaVan, a European joint venture owned by Daimler and Via, will start operating 50 Mercedes-Benz vans and electric cars in three of Berlin’s central boroughs next spring, Daimler said on Wednesday. The BVG cooperation enables ViaVan to use a legal loophole, allowing experimental projects to be nurtured under the agency’s wings.
VW, an investor in Uber’s rival Gett, is taking a similar route and will next year start a pooled taxi service in Hamburg, Germany’s second-biggest city after Berlin. Passengers can order by app and share the vehicle with other people. VW’s mobility-service subsidiary, Moia, has joined forces with the city’s public transportation provider, Hamburger Hochbahn, sticking to the fine print of Germany’s Passenger Transportation Act. This law only permits transport companies or licensed taxi firms to offer public transportation.
“We are in discussions with several cities. In London, we are waiting for the official permit.”
Back in September, Daimler announced it would buy a stake in Via, which offers its own services in New York, Chicago and Washington DC, and invest $50 million in the European joint venture ViaVan to launch ride-sharing services on the Continent. Via, which started its services in 2013, relies on sophisticated software to calculate the quickest route to pick up travelers from different locations and whisk them to their destinations. Its algorithms already power the shared ride services of LA Metro, Austin’s transportation authority, and ArrivaClick, a British bus-and-train operator owned by Deutsche Bahn.
Surprisingly, Daimler’s service offered by ViaVan may compete with another pool-riding service it launched last week in Stuttgart, where the carmaker has its headquarters. Daimler’s mobility app, Moovel, teamed up with the city’s local transport authority to offer a ride-sharing service called Flexpilot. It operates identical to ViaVan’s taxis in Berlin, but runs on Moovel’s own technology.
In Berlin, ViaVan’s vehicles will be branded with the design of the local transportation authority, which paints its buses and street cars bright yellow and carry the letters BVG of Berlin’s transport company. Passengers can board the cars and vans at all regular bus stops and other important points, such as intersections. Users pay a base fee and a variable price, depending on the distance. “The offer is priced between a bus ticket and a taxi fare,” said Volker Mornhinweg, head of Mercedes-Benz Vans.
Daimler, which also owns taxi-order app Mytaxi, a direct competitor to Uber, expects to roll out ViaVan to other cities in Europe. “We are in discussions with several cities,” Mr. Mornhinweg told Handelsblatt during a presentation in Berlin. “In London, we are waiting for the official permit.” ViaVan also has the option to license Via’s software to European transport companies, which can operate it under their own brands.
On Thursday, Daimler’s greater ambitions became clearer after it said it would buy a majority stake in France’s Chauffeur Privé, a budding car-ride app and rival to Uber, and become its sole owner by 2019. “Some time ago, we were looking for investors willing to spend €50 million to expand in Europe,” Chauffeur founder and CEO Yan Hascoet told Handelsblatt. “That’s how we met Daimler.” The French company, founded in 2011, will launch its services in several European cities next year, but Mr. Hascoet declined to give details.
With this purchase, Daimler expanded its mobility services to 15 countries and more acquisitions were possible, a company spokesman said. If the carmaker’s plans work out, Daimler may take Uber and its rivals for a ride.
Markus Fasse specializes in aviation and automobile industry news and works from Handelsblatt’s Munich office. Gilbert Kreijger is an editor with Handelsblatt Global. Tanja Kuchenbecker, a correspondent in France, contributed to this article. To contact the authors: firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com