28 Nov 22

We chat with Vay’s Justin Spratt about the “magic” of remotely driven cars

And his new role at the company....

Like many in the fleet industry, Justin Spratt is on a mission: to help rid the world of transport emissions and make mobility accessible to all. Earlier this year, he took up the role of VP of Business & Corporate Development at Vay, which is trialling a teledriven service without a driver in the car that could revolutionise car sharing (more on that later). 

Spratt himself is quite a character who speaks with a distinct South African accent. Although measured in what he says, it’s clear he’s an energetic and passionate individual with a strong purpose and excitement about his new role. 

Fresh from the “Uberverse”

Prior to Vay, Spratt was part of the elite “Uberverse”, employed by the pioneering ride-hailing company as Head of Global Strategic Partnerships. He started out as Head of Business for Africa but in the heady Travis Kalanick days, he says, his territory quickly expanded to include the Middle East, Pakistan, Europe and the whole African continent. In his final years at Uber, he was doing more deals in a month than a casino croupier! 

So now he’s taken all that energy to Vay who created a new role just for him. So, there’s no blueprint or map to follow, no road already trodden, no comparison or established KPIs to rely on. It’s all uncharted territory but then again, so it is for Vay itself. 

The ultimate car-as-a-service

The company is pioneering a service that enables customers to book a car (through a smartphone app), have it turn up to their location driverless (having been driven there remotely), for them to drive it anywhere they need to go, get out and walk away while it’s driven away by the remote driver. It’s exciting but has never been done before. Many people would find that daunting but one gets the impression Spratt likes skiing off piste (as it were). 

“We think we have a unique way to solve urban transportation problems. It’s clear now that most people understand that owning a car and having two cars on the driveway, parked up most of the time, is not the best way to live in big cities. 

We think our unique approach to providing a car-as-a-service (CaaS) will enable people to take a car and use it only when they need it, for getting to those places and appointments that are hard to do by public transport or any other means. The economics speak for themselves and it makes a tonne of sense.

In addition, if we can move these cars around remotely, without having a driver in them waiting for their next hail, or having to do drop offs in really inefficient parts of the city, that’s also economically really good.”

Spratt and his team are currently in talks with automotive OEMs to try and build partnerships and although he was not forthcoming on the details, he’s encouraged by how it’s going. “There’s no doubt it’s part of their landscape for the future.” He urges. 

This is good for automotive OEMs too

It may seem strange that OEMs would want to partner with a company that is discouraging people from buying cars. But as Spratt himself says: “They know that day is coming. When? We don’t know exactly but in the meantime we can create massive efficiencies for them if they partner with us by enabling those vehicles to work a lot harder and create a new revenue stream that they can be part of.” 

For Vay’s mobility scheme to be commercialised, it’s critical that the teledriving part of it is faultless and safe. To that end, Spratt is also build partnerships with telecom companies and network operators. 

Vay is currently working with permits from the authorities in Berlin and Hamburg, Germany, where it has a trial service in operation with about 20 vehicles. It is also collaborating closely with regulators. “Our view is that if we can pass German safety standards and convince the authorities there that the service is safe, we can do it anywhere.” says Spratt. 

“I think cost sharing is incredibly important in the whole mobility-as-a-service or transport-as-a-service ecosystem.”

Currently, both trials are mandated to operate with a safety driver in each vehicle but after three years of testing, Vay is preparing for approval to take the driver out of the vehicle. 

Eying up North America

Are they planning to set up in other European counties? Spratt said yes but couldn’t reveal which markets. He did say, however, that one of the most interesting markets after Germany is the USA. “The market potential there is significant and we have a lot of good connections, particularly through Uber. I think the Americans move faster than other markets and they’ve already shown interest in our service. 

But hang on a sec, cities are desperately trying to get cars out of city centres by establishing LEZs and Vay is tying to put them back in? Also, many news reports suggest the concept of car-sharing is slowing not growing. I asked Spratt to explain and this was the first time he used the word “magic”. 

“Fundamentally, it’s magic,” he stated, “we think this cost share service is super powerful. Because the economics of car sharing have been problematic, it has not attracted enough investment and has been constrained by that. There’s still friction in that market for users, they have to walk to where the car is, then park it at the other side. With Vay, there’s no friction. It’s magic, you click on a button, get in a car, drive, get out, that’s magic. The user experience is frictionless and that enables the market to grow.” 

Spratt also highlights the second economic crush for car-sharing model is that those cars have to be homed in inner city hotspots, and that is incredibly expensive, which is one area in which Spratt says Vay has an advantage as they can reduce that cost substantially. 

It’ll be interesting to see how and where Vay goes with its CaaS model and which companies follow. It does seem promising and Spratt and his team certainly have the energy, expertise and connections to make it happen. Rest assured Fleet Europe will be watching with interest. 

Image: Vay

Authored by: Alison Pittaway