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The Oregonian: Daimler, betting on urban transportation, puts its marker on Portland
Author: Mike Rogoway, The Oregonian
Posted: January 9, 2017

Editor's note: Daimler is a strategic partner with PSU, and GlobeSherpa was started by PSU students.

Read the original article in The Oregonian here.

Imagine a time, maybe not too long from now, when most city folk don't own a car. It's so normal that many teens don't even bother getting a driver's license.

Oh, there are still plenty of cars around. Perhaps more than there are today.

When people want to go somewhere, they might order up a car service like Uber or Lyft, only without a driver. Or they might use a car-sharing service, grabbing a ride for just a couple hours. Maybe they'd hop on a bus. Then light rail. Then a rental bike.

Imagine what this might mean for carmakers.

"If you take these all into consideration this is a pretty tragic picture for auto manufacturers," said Jorg Lamparter, chief executive of Moovel Group, a subsidiary of the German industry titan Daimler.

When Daimler imagines this future, Lamparter says, it thinks about apps, about self-driving cars, about electric vehicles. And it thinks about Portland.

"It's a place where we can perfectly test and develop our products," Lamparter said by phone from Moovel's main office in Germany.

Daimler bought GlobeSherpa in 2015 and folded the tiny Portland startup best known for TriMet's ticketing app into Moovel, which has a portfolio of other apps for planning and paying for transportation in urban areas.

GlobeSherpa had 27 employees at the time of its sale; Moovel now employs 80 in Portland and is in the process of closing its office in Austin and moving that work to its new office in Old Town. When complete, the Portland workforce will number nearly 120.

Most of us depend mightily on our cars, yet they sit idle nearly all the time - in the garage at home or a parking lot at work. Meanwhile, we spend thousands of dollars a year on gas, insurance, maintenance and loan payments.

Daimler is considering the possibility that as transportation options proliferate, city dwellers might consider cheaper alternatives - paying for cars only when needed, using a ride-hailing service like Uber or a car-sharing service like Daimler's car2go. Maybe they'd use public transport sometimes or borrow a bike for short trips.

Moovel's Portland employees are dreaming up and designing new iterations of its mobile technology such as RideTap, app technology for urban transportation.

Designed to enable multipurpose apps for urban travelers, RideTap offers multiple options for any given trip. Software designers can build in the ability to summon a Lyft ride, locate a nearby car2go vehicle, or plot a public transit ride. Users can weigh the options and choose the fastest, or most affordable, option for each trip.

Lamparter said that Daimler hopes the apps will enable travelers to choose the most efficient options for getting around. But just as importantly, tracking which options travelers select will teach the maker of Mercedes-Benz and Smart cars what they want.

"They all give us access to customers and users who do not use their own cars," he said. "They all provide us information about people living in urban areas."

Daimler already has a substantial Portland presence, at the former Freightliner site on Swan Island. Daimler Trucks North America employs 1,000 at its new riverfront headquarters there, plus more than 500 at a nearby Western Star truck factory.

Moovel's arrival in the neighborhood is the latest example of how Portland's booming tech scene is transforming the city's core.

Freightliner aside, though, Portland doesn't have much heritage in the auto industry. So the Rose City, 5,300 miles from Stuttgart, might seem like an unlikely choice for Daimler's bet on the market's future.

It doesn't seem strange to Portland transportation consultant Adrian Pearmine, who focuses on "smart cities" and connected vehicles for the engineering and planning firm DKS Associates.

"We're becoming a small, little transportation innovation cluster," Pearmine said.

That started with TriMet, he said, which published its bus and rail arrival information in an open format that became the industry standard after Google adopted it. The agency continued its technological embrace with services like GlobeSherpa's ticketing app. Meanwhile, other companies - like Jaguar Land Rover - opened Portland outposts to explore transportation technology.

(Matt Jones, the Jaguar executive who opened the company's Portland lab, is now Moovel's chief product officer.)

And Portland has the full array of urban transportation options: Cars, bikes, buses, light rail, streetcars and car-sharing services. That makes the city a natural destination for Daimler, according to Pearmine, who said he likes Moovel's approach.

"The thing I like about the way that Daimler is coming at it is it's not all-in on the autonomous vehicle and it's not all-in on one single ride-sharing solution," Pearmine said. Rather, Daimler and Moovel are exploring a number of alternatives, he said, giving them the leeway to change course as technology evolves.

And it may not be evolving quite as fast as some people think, according to Jennifer Dill, professor of urban studies and planning at Portland State University.

For example, Dill said, young people today do seem more likely to take transit or use a car-sharing service. But she said it's not yet clear whether that represents a cultural shift, or if it's simply that young people aren't as rushed and don't have as much money to spend on cars. As they grow up, perhaps, their travel habits may look more like their parents.'

And Dill said it could be that transportation technologies reinforce old transportation patterns rather than introduce new ones. If you can take a self-driving car, and work on your laptop while riding, perhaps you would be more likely to live in the suburbs and endure a longer - but more productive - commute.

Even with 120 employees in Portland, Moovel still represents a relatively tiny outlay for Daimler, which reported more than $150 billion in revenue last year. So it's more like Moovel is hedging Daimler's bets, rather than remaking the company.

GlobeSherpa founder Nat Parker now runs Moovel's Portland office. He said it's his job to inject a bit of startup fervor and imagination into a larger company that longs for some original thinking.

"There is a petting zoo aspect to it," Parker said. "They're kind of fascinated with our colorful feathers."

Parker said that operating within Daimler, but as a subsidiary in an office halfway around the world, gives Moovel the opportunity to see the industry from an outsider's perspective. And he said the growth of the Portland outpost over the past 18 months shows the parent company values that insight.

"Daimler has essentially said: We want you to focus on innovation, growth, and change, and we're willing to invest significant resources," Parker said.

Correction: This article has been corrected to note that RideTap is a software development kit enabling other transportation apps, but not a standalone app itself.