For many years specialty electronics firms have been building audio-visual, navigation and networking systems to fit into vehicles, to the point where cars are beginning to talk to each other.

This combination of real transport and virtual connectivity, however, began the other way round - with the network.

German audio specialists Harman Kardon, realising that the concept of a collective (much more powerful than the sum of its individuals) applies as much to cars as it does to people, pushed its Harman Cloud platform to include a mobility app that combines the input from a number of vehicles in real time.

URBAN SWARM

The 'urban swarm' principle combines the benefits of car-pooling, taxis, and public transport, not only for regular commuters in permanent carpools, but also for people looking for unscheduled rides or needing to cover individual legs of their trip with the help of several members.

A special app gives members of the group access to the network. All they do is enter their destination; the community uses Cloud technology and access to the collective information and experience of the entire swarm of vehicles to do the rest.

The system knows the routes, destinations, travelling speeds and occupancy of all vehicles in the swarm, so it can calculate potential ride opportunities in real time and even figure out transfer options, with no bookings, no detours and a minimum of waiting.

It'll find the closest member vehicle to you, and ask whoever is driving it to stop and pick you up. Then when it reaches the point closest to your destination, it'll ask the driver to drop you off.

MADE TO MEASURE

But when they took the idea to Swiss car designer Frank Rinderknecht of Rinspeed, he realised that it would require an entirely new type of vehicle - part bus, part taxi, part pavement cafe.

The result is the electrically-powered microMax, which will be on display at the Geneva motor show from 7-17 March. It's only 3.7 metres long - about the same as a modern Mini - but it's 2.2 metres tall and has space for the driver and three passengers in half-standing, half-sitting 'seats' that are so special TRW had to invent a new type of seatbelt for them, as well as a pram or shopping trolley, climate control, a coffee machine, a bar fridge and a permanent wi-fi hotspot.

FORKLIFT DRIVE

It's driven by a standard indoor forklift drive system from Linde and has a huge VDO touchscreen for the driver that keeps him in contact with the system, shows the best route to where he wants to go, where to drop his passengers and a where to pick up any new passengers.

The 'swarm' concept means that once there are enough microMax owners in any area, there will always be one near you, going in the direction you want to go - you just have to ask your tablet to contact the collective and bring them to you.

A STEP BEYOND

Rinderknecht has also taken the idea a step further, visualising a more commercial version with a cargo bay that allows you to slot in a standard module containing the tools of your particular trade, and then use the collective to bring you to your customers - or even find them, by online advertising and bookings.

The principle - and the app - are the same; how's that for thinking in a whole new kind of box?