Imagine a city where instead of driving, residents can log on to a network of shared cars, buses, taxis and even bikes, all bookable and billable in real time on smartphones.

In one country this is not some fanciful vision, but a goal that could be realised within years. Planners in the Finnish capital Helsinki want to offer people an array of options so cheap and flexible that it becomes competitive with driving private cars. "The city is on the cusp of a transportation revolution," says Tommi Rimpiläinen, a senior business advisor at Helsinki’s regional development agency. The plan is to transform the city’s transport system into a "mobility on demand" service that could ease congestion, lower carbon emissions and pave the way to faster and more efficient journeys.

At its heart are connected cars, which use smartphone technology to generate data displayed on the dashboards and windscreens of new vehicles. As Helsinki’s plan suggests, it could change the way journeys are made, sparking "a new age of urban development," according to Greg Lindsay, a senior fellow at the US-based think tank the New Cities Foundation.

Sonja Heikkilä
Sonja Heikkilä, the former student who helped draft an ambitious mobility plan for Helsinki. Photo: Susanna Lehto

"We want more liveable cities," agrees Sonja Heikkilä, a 25-year-old hired by the city’s administrators after working on the idea at Finland’s Aalto University. Her thesis, which had the backing of the City of Helsinki, outlined a plan for future mobility services in response to concerns that the city’s population could increase by 45% by the middle of the century. Heikkilä no longer works with Helsinki officials, but is pleased that mobility on demand is now central to Finnish transport policy.


Cards in cars

But is this actually a revolution or more the inevitable march of technological change? If you have ever used a mobile phone’s Bluetooth function to play music through car speakers, you have experienced the technology in its infancy.

"People now have computers in their pockets that are more powerful than the technology which first landed man on the moon," says Nick Mueller, chief creative officer at Mobgen, a mobile technology agency whose clients include Peugeot, Vodafone and Shell. "Manufacturers have traditionally thought about the hardware of their cars, but software – such as driver data and notifications – is of increasing importance."

BMW has fitted 3G SIM cards to cars produced since April 2014, giving mobile capabilities such as on-board GPS and internet services. Other car manufacturers are expected to follow suit. By 2018, 36 million new cars - almost a third of those sold - will carry a card on board, according to UK-based research firm SBD.

Apple and Google are among the firms leading the charge, bringing services including voice-activation and geolocation onto specially-designed dashboards. Apple’s CarPlay could be available in 37 million cars by 2020, the UK-based automotive consultancy IHS Automotive predicts. Google’s Android Auto could be fitted on 40 million cars during the same period.

2025 is the year nearly all new cars will be connected to the internet. Source: GSMA.

Future mobility

Connected car technology continues to evolve. It includes the Shell Motorist app, which uses GPS technology to locate the nearest Shell service station and enables drivers to pay for fuel from their cars. UberPool, which mobile taxi firm Uber launched in London last November, uses GPS technology so that commuters can share a ride with someone nearby going in the same direction.

But such advances bring challenges. With the global connected car market forecast to be worth nearly £30 billion in 2018 according to SBD, critics warn of potential pitfalls such as driver distraction or data and privacy concerns.

Manufacturers are seeking to address such issues. Despite the challenges, they maintain that connected cars will enhance road safety with technology that offers an extra set of eyes and a steady hand on the wheel. BMW and Tesla are among those offering automatic programmes to keep cars at a safe distance, on the correct side of the road and even apply the brakes when necessary.

Driving may never be the same. Helsinki points to a future in which the way we move around will be less about one individual destination, and more about our collective journeys. Our already digital world is about to become even more connected.

Digital Futures

Shell Drive app in the Project M car
The upcoming app Shell Drive will also offer motorists insights into fuel consumption and driving styles

Shell is exploring the potential of car connectivity with its Project M concept car. When unveiled later this year, the car will include a range of connected features. "Our ambition is to offer deeper insights into driving efficiency and performance by building a digital bond between the vehicle and the driver," says Thanos Kokkionotis, Mobile Innovations Manager for Shell Retail. "The car of the future will detect driving styles and give insights into fuel economy, maintenance and safety." That, many hope, is just the start of what is ahead.

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