• News
  • People
  • Long Read
  • Opinion
  • Weekend Wrap


All roads lead to smart mobility

Helsinki recently rolled into second place in the 109-city wide Smart City Index.

Jussi Hellsten / City of Helsinki

Finnish companies are helping the world to overtake the traditional and accelerate into a new era of mobility with safe, efficient and sustainable transport design.

A little over four billion people currently live in urban areas and three-and-a-half billion in rural areas. By 2050, the United Nations estimates that city dwellers will have increased in number by almost three billion.

Managing the world’s metropolises and absorbing an influx of residents to enable safe, sustainable and efficient city services are universal challenges. Challenges that, if handled in the right way, can provide advantages through innovation and commerce but also avoid headaches like pollution and inequality caused by poorly planned urban services.

An important tool to tackle the bottleneck for mobility in swollen cities is smart mobility, which aims to provide a network of safe, efficient and sustainable logistics and commuting solutions to citizens. Helsinki, amid its bid to become the world’s most functional city, is a hotbed for smart mobility solutions. Chief among the priorities is mobility as a service (MAAS).

“The core of MAAS is the freedom of mobility without having to own a vehicle,” explains Sampo Hietanen, founder and CEO of MaaS Global.

“Mobility is individually experienced freedom to move as you wish, where you wish and when you wish. Service means that you do not own the means of production, you get it from a service provider when and how you need it.”

Hietanen has been the driving force behind the concept, commencing the great reimagination of customer-centric transport in 2015.

Today MaaS Global, through its app, Whim, has 200 000 users and has facilitated over 16 million journeys via 30 different service providers using up to eight different modes of transport. The company is active in Finland, the UK, Belgium, Austria and Japan.

“The freedom to roam is our core value,” states Hietanen. “The biggest dilemma in transport is that if a city wanted to make an absolutely rational system, then it would be forced upon you. But as long as we hold individual liberty dear, it is not possible.”

To change the way we move, without compromising the core values, the concept will need innovations in all the smart mobility areas – safety, efficiency and sustainability.

“So far, it has been easy to work on this since the technical expertise in the transport business is very high here in Finland and there’s plenty of skilled people to work with.”

Bringing autonomous driving to its senses

GACHA was a collaboration between Sensible4 and Japanese minimalist retailer MUJI. Image: Jussi Hellsten

While many of the novel technologies associated with, and touted alongside, intelligent transport spark our collective imagination to sci-fi-esque visions of future urban space, it is also important to pay attention and homage to those that focus on the tedious things that are critical for those visions to become reality someday.

Things such as the nervous system of autonomous vehicles.

“Our idea saw daylight concurrently with the hype around self-driving from 2015 onwards, which brought the potential of the industry to the forefront,” says Harri Santamala, CEO of Sensible4, a provider of integrated all-weather autonomous vehicle solutions that tackle last-mile commuting needs, as demonstrated recently with self-driving bus GACHA.

“We quickly came to realise the great possibilities but also the huge technological challenges and shortcomings of the industry.”

Perhaps the cynical Finnish relationship with weather is the reason the software company realised its niche in autonomous vehicles’ all-weather qualities. But what made it possible was the founders’ collective automation expertise of over 30 years, steeped in Aalto University’s robotics research since the ‘80s.

“Why are we building these machines if they are not able to drive in thick fog, heavy rain or snow? It’s not a sustainable business model because the machine should be able to imitate humans for the automated transport process to make sense.”

According to Santamala, cost-effectiveness will provide the commercial incentive for businesses to adapt to autonomous transport processes in the future. However, effectiveness cannot always be separated from its two smart-mobility cousins.

“Another incentive is safety. Over 90 per cent of traffic accidents are due to human error, and it is something we can get rid of. The way we move is at a critical juncture, and I think we are forced to move from private cars to public transport,” continues Santamala.

“When traffic congestion and emissions keep increasing, we’re at an unsustainable situation.”

Verge Motorcycle’s design leaves out chains, gears and filters and replaces them with a smooth yet juiced-up electric package that delivers 80kW of power, 1 000Nm of torque and a range of 200-300 kilometres. Image: VERGE Motorcycles

Electric avenues

Sensible4’s autonomous people-mover is part of a wider push towards sustainable mobility in Finland. The Helsinki Regional Transport Authority (HSL) has plans to turn a third of its fleet of 1 500 vehicles into electric ones by 2025.

But it’s not all about sizeable vehicles with great capacity. One way to shake one’s beliefs and habits is to see an electric yacht float by, without making a sound. Or to feast one’s eyes on the awesome power of an electric hyper car that can reach speeds of 400 km/h in 11 seconds.

Sustainable change is creeping into two-wheeler markets, too, and hopping onto the wagon is Finnish startup Verge Motorcycles, with its hubless electric roadster named TS.

“This is definitely something that hasn’t been done before. All the other electric motorcycles imitate the traditional century-old motorcycle design that’s built for a combustion engine,” says Tuomo Lehtimäki, CEO of Verge Motorcycles.

“We started from scratch and took the motor where the electricity is consumed, to the back wheel.”

Established in 2018, the startup raised one million euros a year later, in 2019.

Regardless of the fickle beast that is 2020, Verge’s product development will be ready by the year’s end and the first 50-unit batch will be shipped to European customers in early 2021.

“People hate the fact that their clean oxygen is burned into exhaust fumes, and it is precisely this that creates positive market pressure for us,” says Lehtimäki. “Our mission is to save clean air for people.”

In addition to the lucrative markets and world-first innovation, Verge Motorcycles is driven forward by a sense of purpose.

“Urbanisation has created an imperative need for green technology,” says Lehtimäki. “It’s fulfilling to work on our solution and, at the same time, know that we’re doing something for the greater good.”

Here’s your change

Climate change is often talked about as an impending catastrophe. But for some regions of the world, the woes of uncontrolled urbanisation are already a daily tragedy.

In Kenya, an estimated 14 000 people die as a result of traffic pollution annually. Home to 4.5 million people, Nairobi has one of the most congested traffic systems on the planet. It’s this crowded space that Finnish company EkoRent has entered with its Nopea Ride concept, seeking to ease the flow.

“We’re the green Uber,” states Juha Suojanen, founder and CEO of EkoRent, which is connecting an increasing number of e-taxis with passengers via its smartphone app.

“We provide local taxi drivers 30 to 50 per cent more earnings with our electric vehicles and produce zero emissions, because the electricity we use is renewable, thanks to the city’s energy supply.”

With the rise in oil prices and consumption-heavy inner city commuting, the interests of local professional taxi drivers are quickly turning towards electric vehicles and the ever more digital demands of the young demographic of Nairobi. But that’s not all.

“Our fleet is made up of used electric cars that have been deemed too old in Western countries and can hence be imported rather cheaply,” says Suojanen.

Nopea Ride is on track to have the infrastructure for a fleet of 40 electric vehicles in 2020 – a break-even number for the company. At the same time, talks are underway about scaling up, to e-mobilise Africa.

“With the existing fleet, we’re already Africa’s biggest electric taxi hailing company,” tells Suojanen. “We’re negotiating about the next funding round, which could grow our fleet to up to 100 vehicles, along with the required charging network.”

The success of the funding round could also prove a milestone for the company’s future, enabling it to begin looking for other cities to deploy its concept in. With a big enough fleet, Suojanen also envisions a possibility to store electricity due to the surplus supply of renewable energy and the high price of batteries.

Market design

The multi-trillion-euro mobility industry is at a crossroads. Image: Julius Konttinen

Battery prices are not the only systemic factor hindering the rise of a global electric system of ride-sharing, two-wheelers and public transport. Electric vehicles require a whole new set of infrastructure to ensure consumers a smooth flow and broad reach. But who would – or could – be the Elon Musk of smart mobility infrastructure?

“The time of individual technological disruptions is over,” says MaaS Global’s Hietanen. “They’re not going to happen via one company any more, as we approach the more systemic side of change.”

“It has been the case that whoever gets there first can enjoy first-mover advantages and dictate the rules. Nowadays, I’d argue that it’s more about anticipating the rules and collaborating to find common ground.”

But as we now see with the discussion on regulating big tech companies, there is a dire need for the public sector to provide strategic guidelines for ecosystems and ensure a societal voice on matters of privacy, antitrust and disinformation.

“No single company should be able to control how we live, move or source energy, especially based solely on its own interests,” says Hietanen. “We need public authorities to bring the needs of society to the table, too, and for these ecosystems to design the market according to everyone’s needs: the citizens, companies and society.”

What would this kind of future look like?

“I suppose it would be an urban area where we don’t even need to invest politics in decreasing the number of cars because the alternative options are just too good to pass up on.”

By: Samuli Ojala