Dubai on the right road for the driverless cars phenomenon

The proclamation made by Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, that a quarter of all journeys will be made in driverless vehicles by 2030 could lead to the city becoming a magnet for investment and pilot projects, according to one expert.

Lee Woodcock, the global product director for intelligent mobility at engineering consultancy Atkins, said that although there are currently many companies and research institutions around the world pumping money into connected (semi-autonomous) and autonomous vehicles, there are few cities and countries embracing them.

“For me, one thing that is quite frustrating is that there are two worlds that are not coming together, Mr Woodcock said. “We’ve got the OEMs [original equipment manufacturers] and the automotive world that is doing some fantastic work around connected and autonomous vehicles, but then you’ve got the infrastructure and network managers, who manage cities and their road networks. At the moment, those two worlds are not coming together. And they need to.”

He said that the statement made by Sheikh Mohammed in late April that 25 per cent of journeys in Dubai will be made via driverless vehicles by 2030 “is exactly the right thing to do”.

“It’s someone being serious and providing leadership and clarity about what we are going to do,” said Mr Woodcock.

Atkins is currently working on two, major UK government-backed research projects into intelligent mobility, which is predicted to be worth £900 billion (Dh4.77 trillion) a year by 2025. It is part of a team researching levels of trust and acceptance in driverless cars, but also the legal and insurance implications of their use. It is also involved in a project assessing how the technology can be used to offer greater independence to older people. The firm has produced a white paper arguing that for intelligent mobility to thrive, six fundamentals have to be in place: digital infrastructure, data capture and exploitation capability, good infrastructure, cyber security, leadership and partnership between developers and city chiefs.

The first four can be generated almost anywhere, Mr Woodcock said, but the last two are more difficult to replicate.

“If you’re creating an environment where the private sector knows that a city is serious about its ambitions for driverless cars, you can start to develop world-leading international test centres where people would want to come and validate their services and new technology in a safe manner.”

He said trials could start within “safe” environments such as ports and airports, where repetitive tasks such as refuelling planes and transporting passengers could be carried out by autonomous vehicles. Eventually, semi-autonomous and autonomous vehicles would then be introduced onto roads, and co-exist alongside regular vehicles.

And although autonomous vehicles are already being touted as a more efficient and safer method of transport than today’s cars – allowing for the creation of ‘freight trains’, for example, where heavy goods vehicles are bunched much more closely together to boost road capacity – Mr Woodcock said work needs to be done on this transition.

Oliver Plunkett, the Middle East managing director of engineering consultancy Buro Happold, said that he believed the 25 per cent target could be introduced by introducing fairly simple measures, such as segregating lanes on the Dubai-Abu Dhabi highway and other major routes. Once users see how efficient the driverless system is, more would be persuaded to switch, he said.

“We need to be confident as a society that this change is a revolution in the way we transport ourselves, rather than an evolution.

“As engineers, we have a responsibility to [think] what the ultimate solution should be.”

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