Steve Appleby: The art of selling a new idea

Steve Appleby was recently named head of Awake Mobility in the UK. But a new idea – no matter how good – can be a hard sell in the coach and bus industry

Steve Appleby has been an engineer for over 40 years. In May he was appointed Head of UK for German tech startup Awake Mobility. As routeone discovered, the company is bringing forward a new predictive maintenance platform to operators which promises to cut maintenance downtime and drive up operational efficiency. But finding an operator to take a leap of faith on a new system is not the easiest task.

Steve Appleby

Forcing change

Steve fell into the world of buses when he left the military on medical grounds in 2007. With experience in depot management, he began with Metroline where he put in place a lean methodology way of working and set up a training school. Epsom Coaches came next, followed by Go-Ahead, three years in rail, and a role as Engineering Director for First Bus in Manchester. After a second short spell at Go-Ahead, he received a call from Awake Mobility founder and CEO Daniel Tyoschitz.

“Sadly I was no longer working for Go-Ahead,” Steve recalls. “But Daniel asked if I would like to do a podcast with him.

“So I did a show talking about my career, my ideas of leadership, and where I thought engineering was going. And then he told me about the product – after explaining what Awake was developing.”

Steve subsequently fell in love with the platform. He now advises on the development of the system and ensuring it is fit for the end user. He also helps the young development team behind the product face an industry dominated by the older generation.

“Daniel had a conception that the older generation struggled to accept change and new ideas,” Steve recalls. “I changed his mind on that. I love new technology. So I joined to give advice, and hopefully use my contacts in the bus world. I believe in what we’re trying to achieve here.”

Encouraging people to accept change would become a trend, as it turns out. People do want it, Steve says, but – owing to a certain degree of resistance within the industry – that change does not come easily.

Commitment to bus

For Steve, selling the idea of Awake Mobility’s predictive maintenance is more than just selling a convenience or something that is “nice to have”. it’s about achieving a step change in the approach to bus engineering and business management. “The bus world is a 24-hour, seven-days-a-week business. Unless an operator is rigid in how it manages that vehicle, manages each chassis, and how it manages its depot availability within the engineering side, anything that can be left because it’s not safety critical will be left. And that’s the way many businesses run.”

That way of working means that the same issues will crop up year after year. “And this is purely my opinion,” Steve adds. “But I can’t see a step change happening – and one is needed, since we have massive changes in technology emerging.”

Hydrogen fuel cell-electric and battery-electric vehicles still present a “mystery” for many bus engineers, Steve believes. And that has led to inefficient ways of working. “Transport for Greater Manchester has multiple telematics systems fitted to its vehicles,” he points out.

“One unrelated operator sends an engineer around every night to pull readings off its electric buses, to see what charge is on them. We’re talking about 21st century technology with a 19th century engineering approach.”

Technology has the answer to that. But getting people to listen to new ways of working has been difficult. “People are like that,” Steve says. “The industry wants change. But we don’t want to change. Everyone is very open, and are interested in what we are doing. but people also want to stick with what they know.”

Ironically, Awake Mobility has seen a great deal of interest from other sectors. But the three men who founded the business – Houssem Braham, Daniel Saddle and Daniel Tyoschitz – have committed firmly to working with the coach and bus industry. “This is about their concept,” Steve explains. “This is about their ideas, and their commitment to the bus world. And I’m proud of them for that. It’s got to be admired.”

A reluctant industry

So why the resistance from the coach and bus sector? There is a cost element. But Steve thinks there is also a “leap of faith” necessary before a new way of working is widely embraced. “People are comfortable. They do things in a certain way. Change comes from the top. It needs to be driven down and then it needs to be invested.”

COVID-19 has compounded problems and is also holding back investment in new technology. “People are trying to find their feet again,” Steve points out. “Although this is a great system and great to have, people have got other priorities at the moment. Keeping afloat, for one.”

But Steve reiterates that change can be difficult within the coach and bus industry as a given. A lot of the shift is now being driven by technology. London is ahead of much of the UK due to factors driving change in the capital faster than elsewhere. “Transport for London forces a lot of change on the industry, which is accepted, but outside of franchised environments, it can be difficult – even when I was on the inside, it was difficult.” Steve draws a parallel with telematics systems when they were first introduced. “People laughed at first. Now I struggle to think of a company without telematics.”

One potential avenue is government support, as has happened in Germany. “Someone needs to take a risk from a financial point of view. Another problem is that, at the minute, I can’t show potential operators what the end product is going to look like – because that end product is going to be so bespoke to each one.”

Proofing of concept is the second, medium-term problem when the short-term challenge of physical and financial investment is met. There is some serious interest from one OEM at the moment, and Steve continues with his ambition to establish a pilot project before the year’s end.

“The world is moving to digital, we are going to be operating in a digital environment,” he adds. The world is moving that way, and the bus world can’t be any different. “Data is king, and using that data in the correct and most efficient way is what’s going to change the industry going forward.”