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Rebooting Japan’s mobility market

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Mobility, a critical factor in every economy, transports people and goods to enable daily activities. As we look to 2030 and beyond, new mobility megatrends, collectively referred to as the ACES—autonomy, connectivity, electrification, and sharing—will powerfully influence both B2C and B2B business models.

Yet new technologies and business models alone are unlikely to overcome the intensifying pressures — created by increasing urbanization and e-commerce — for greater transportation capacity in cities. Similarly, in aging rural communities, the utilization of traditional public-transport services is falling dramatically, so that they are fast becoming uneconomical. Cities and countries need to find new solutions to make their mobility systems cleaner, faster, safer and, at the same time, more affordable.

Transforming mobility systems requires an integrated perspective. Numerous disruptions are required — not just to vehicles, which might even include unmanned aerial transport, but also to energy grids, connectivity networks, and delivery logistics. Public and private players must join hands to accommodate and optimize the additional demand for and presence of mobility services. Led by local governments, ecosystems consisting of OEMs, technology players, telcos, utilities and urban planners should be formed to pilot and deliver effective, efficient solutions.

Japan is a front-runner in many macrotrends now accelerating the need for new mobility solutions that better match the changing needs of passengers and businesses. With a shrinking population and workforce, as well as stalling productivity and urbanization, the country is poised to transform its mobility system and unlock economic potential. In this article, we examine how digital players, supported by megafund investors, are revamping Japan’s long-stagnant taxi industry. While car sharing and ride pooling remain limited, newly formed partnerships are slowly making hailed mobility services more efficient and affordable.

As both local and global players attempt to capture a loyal rider base in Japan, the lessons from these partnerships will probably have broad implications for other markets facing similar economic, demographic and regulatory trends.

Now that Japan is undergoing a series of demographic and economic shifts, the transition to more efficient and affordable mobility modes will require new partnership models and regulations. Renowned for high quality and convenience, Japan’s hailed mobility industry is rebooting. The global ride-hailing giants Uber and Didi, along with local incumbents, are finding new ways to move into the country’s $17 billion taxi market. Yet there is plenty of room to further integrate these disruptive technologies to mobilize future transportation services, such as self-driving robo-taxis.

Ride-hailing companies are challenging the traditional taxi business around the world. In the United States, market leaders Uber and Lyft have combined net revenues of $13 billion. In China, Didi has an estimated 450 million users, constituting 95 percent of the ride-hailing market.2 Yet given the existing regulatory environment and mixed customer perceptions, few Japanese taxi companies have revamped their offerings to include digital or pooling services.

Meanwhile, Japanese taxi operators face challenges to their traditional business model. As taxi usage declined steadily over the past 30 years, the industry’s profits have fallen, passenger-kilometers have stagnated at about 40 percent of total kilometers driven and driver shortages persist. These trends have been exacerbated by continued migration to Japan’s megacities, where public transit is both cheap and convenient and by an overall population decline.

Many mobility players, sensing latent demand for more affordable, mass-market, and on-demand point-to-point transportation options, plan to enter Japan imminently. Younger people believe that more competitively priced ride-hailing services could offer an alternative to public transit for shorter trips. Passengers also recognize other benefits, such as faster hailing during peak periods and simpler communication with drivers. However, several concerns linger among more conservative passengers, who perceive private car-sharing services to be of lower quality than licensed taxi offerings and potentially unsafe, providing regulators with grounds to proceed cautiously.

Tourists, accustomed to ride-hailing services at home, are also expected to push demand higher. Tourism in Japan has grown by 30 percent a year during the past three years5 and will probably continue to increase during the 2019 Rugby World Cup and the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics. In response, in July 2018 China’s Didi announced that it would enter the Osaka market, where it would offer the growing number of Chinese tourists e-hailing options with language and digital-payment friendly features.

Intrinsic demand for point-to-point mobility, coupled with the lack of a dominant market leader, has compelled global ride-hailing companies and their investors to rethink strategies for breaking into the Japanese market. Instead of enlisting private drivers, ride-hailing companies are forming partnerships with local taxi operators to boost utilization, capture demand and thus consolidate a large user base for future robo-taxi offerings. In this way, many players are now gaining access to one of the last major undisrupted mobility markets in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

What’s behind the imminent disruptions?

Several elements will feed into impending change.

A steady shift away from private transportation

Japan’s mobility mix skews heavily toward public mass transport, which accounted for 43 percent of the total passenger-kilometers traveled in the country in 2016 (Exhibit 1), compared with around 2 percent in the United States. In megacities, such as Tokyo and Osaka, that number jumps to 52 percent, largely as a result of the convenience, reliability and affordability of public transportation. Further urbanization is expected to expand the use of mass transit, with some estimates as high as 70 percent of total passenger-kilometers in urban areas by 2025.

Moreover, given an aging and more urban population, private vehicle purchases are falling. In response, car manufacturers are seeking out new revenue streams from services and developing new business models tailored to shared mobility. Many car manufacturers are already forming new ecosystems to make private mobility more flexible and affordable.

Toyota, for example, recently invested in both JapanTaxi and Uber, in part to make Japanese taxi operators more efficient and, eventually, to develop ride-hailing services for shared robo-taxi fleets.

A constrained regulatory environment

Regulations currently limit the number of taxis in circulation, control pricing, and impose parking and licensing requirements, thereby limiting options for passengers and mobility providers. Since Uber launched in Japan, in 2015, the company has been allowed to operate only under its premium chauffeur brand, Uber Black, since owners of private cars are prohibited from transporting passengers for fares. Under those conditions, the company has struggled to gain penetration: in 2017, Uber accounted for less than 1 percent of all rides in Tokyo. In contrast, Tokyo operator Nihon Kotsu launched JapanTaxi, an e-hailing service that provides for in-app reservations and payments. It has achieved five million downloads to date.8 Since then, Uber, Didi, and Sony have adopted the same e-hailing model, without challenging either the supply of taxis or existing price structures.

The government — aware that in certain rural areas, public transport is fast becoming too costly to support — is exploring alternatives. Ride-hailing options are an interim solution. With the government’s approval, Uber is piloting an e-dispatch service for a dozen companies on Awaji Island as public-transit options are streamlined. While this basic e-hailing service is more efficient than current public-transport solutions, the question remains as to how much value a basic e-hailing service can create and at what price for the customer.

Intensifying investments in ride hailing creates new ecosystems

As of the second quarter of 2018, Japanese companies and their venture-capital arms had invested close to $40 billion in ride-hailing companies. The investments, dominated largely by Softbank’s Vision Fund and Toyota, have been ploughed into global ride-hailing giants such as Didi, Grab and Uber. Given the stagnancy of the local taxi market at home, these investors are placing their bets overseas in an attempt to build new ecosystems around future mobility offerings.

As we have already seen, recent investments give traditional car manufacturers short-term growth opportunities, as well as partners to develop self-driving technologies. For instance, Toyota’s investment in the Southeast Asian company Grab, now at around $1 billion in total, will include the development of new services, such as insurance, financing, and predictive maintenance. Going further, Toyota’s $500 million investment in Uber to develop self-driving cars jointly highlights many players’ strategy to develop robo-taxis faster by benefiting from shared capabilities through partnerships, as Google’s Waymo splits from the pack in terms of kilometers simulated and commercial readiness.

Within Japan, players seem to have a choice between two strategies: bringing technologically superior global players into the existing market or forming local ventures and alliances. Softbank, the de facto owner of ride-hailing globally (given its Vision Fund has positions in Uber, Didi, Grab, Ola and 99),11 is pushing for the elimination of restrictions on it in Japan. Until that happens, Softbank continues to help the companies in which it has invested — Didi and Uber — to build a user base by trying out limited versions of th eir ride-hailing services and launching ancillary delivery services, such as Uber Eats.

Conversely, other investors are forming local partnerships that can extend the range of services under the protection of existing regulations. NTT Docomo and Toyota — bringing together car manufacturers, taxi operators, telcos, and e-hailing app providers — invested $20.2 million and $69 million, respectively, in JapanTaxi, a ride-hailing app spun off from the Tokyo taxi operator Nihon Kotsu. As builders of a nascent ecosystem, these players can leverage each other’s capabilities and offerings to reinforce the benefits of the mobility megatrends.

Fragmented competition in the local taxi market

Nevertheless, Japan’s taxi market remains highly fragmented, since most fleets focus regionally. Our analysis of annual reports indicates that small companies with up to ten cabs constitute 90 percent of the national fleet of 240,000 cars (Exhibit 2). Because of this fragmentation, providers of e-hailing apps, which run on algorithms that require scale to optimize routes and supply, must work with multiple operators to capture a large enough user base and fleet network. Sony, for instance, launched a ride-hailing service trial in March 2018 by forming an alliance with six taxi operators, including Daiwa Motor.

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