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Making sense of “driverless” in the desert

Roger Cruickshank | 01 Oct 2015 | Comments

When Masdar took on the idea of driverless pods for its zero carbon city in Abu Dhabi, it still seemed closer to the cartoon world of The Jetsons than something that would be hitting our streets anytime soon.

Technology moves at an incredible pace, however, and it is rapidly catching up to make the idea of driverless vehicles a reality. Major automotive manufacturers are now investing serious money to keep at the head of the herd (or at least to be in the race!), while tech giant Google and taxi-hailing app Uber are blazing their own trails.

The Middle East, where gas-guzzling 4x4s are still the vehicle of choice among many, seems unlikely territory for what we now call Connected and Autonomous Vehicles (CAVs) to take off. There are, however, some compelling reasons to suggest the region could be among the early adopters.

First among these is the fact that some environments are particularly well suited to CAVs. Yes, eventually we’re going to see driverless vehicles on our public roads and highways but in the meantime, one of the most practical applications for them could be in and around major airports.

The traffic within airports is closely monitored, regulated and predictable. What’s more, there’s a surprising amount of it; just think of all the servicing needs for fuel, maintenance, catering, baggage, staff and so on – this is an ideal environment for CAVs. Inside terminals too, they could be applied for basic small-scale transportation needs.

The UAE, Qatar and Saudi Arabia are all home to, or in the process of developing, among the largest and most advanced airports in the world. It’s not difficult, therefore, to see why the Middle East could be at the forefront of investing in CAV technologies.

The region’s property developers are also sure to see the value of CAVs for the typical semi-closed and controlled private developments which are prevalent. The CAV concept offers an attractive, futuristic selling point, but more importantly it has the potential to reduce traffic impact to provide a better, cleaner and safer living environment. It may also allow infrastructure (and associated cost) to be reduced in size, so the benefits are impressive.

I’ve just mentioned the value of improved safety that driverless vehicles offer, and longer term this is likely to be a key reason for bringing CAVs onto public roads in the region. Human error is commonly cited to be responsible for between 80-90% of road accidents. What easier way, then, to slash the number of crashes than by simply taking humans out of the equation?

This would go hand in hand with the ambitions of regional governments to be at the forefront of creating smarter, more resilient and sustainable cities of the future. Integration of state-of-the-art driverless vehicles is part of this vision and will happen.

Dubai’s Roads and Transport Authority (RTA) has already commissioned studies into not only CAVs, but electric vehicles as well, as part of its wider smart city agenda. Expo 2020 could be an ideal platform for sharing ideas and inspiration with the rest of the world – let’s not forget that Dubai is already a leader in adopting driverless technology thanks to its metro, which was designed to be driverless from the outset.

The region will, of course, face many of the same barriers and challenges to CAV deployment as others. Governments will need to review and adapt public policies and regulations, change traffic laws and set clear technical standards. Of key importance will be the need to bring different stakeholders together to work collaboratively towards the same goals.

So while embracing CAVs in the Middle East is not without its challenges – including the need to encourage people to park up their beloved V8s – I wouldn’t bet against cities like Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Doha or Riyadh being among the first to take the technology mainstream. And in the meantime, Masdar’s early foray into driverless pods looks to have been impressively prescient.

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