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Road to safety: Self-driving cars in the Middle East

The Middle East could improve its poor record on road safety through the use of driverless vehicles

Self-driving vehicles could help improve road safety in the Middle East – and the UAE, for one, is trialling their use.

The Gulf region holds the dubious accolade of being the world’s most unsafe place to drive, according the World Health Organisation.

Despite significant regional spending on safety campaigns, the UAE still clocks up 12.7 road deaths per 100,000 people, with 30.4 in Oman, 24.8 in Saudi Arabia, 16.5 in Kuwait, 14 in Egypt and 13.2 in Qatar.

In recent months, the UAE has turned to trialling self-driving technology with the aim of reducing road deaths and easing traffic congestion. The Dubai government recently announced a city target for “one in four UAE residents to be using a driverless vehicle by 2030”.

The emirate has injected millions of dollars into creating Dubai Future Accelerators (DFA), the world’s largest government-supported accelerator, with the aim of nurturing breakthrough technologies, such as self-driving cars and 3D printing. The DFA’s mission is “to turn the future which was once a theoretical concept, into a reality in which Dubai can act as a global leader”.

Saif Al Aleeli, CEO of the Dubai Future Foundation, said more and more companies were investing in autonomous vehicles globally and Dubai intended to lead the way. “With this level of investment, and the appetite for innovation in the automotive industry, we are likely to see big leaps forward in software and hardware in the next five years,” he said.

Al Aleeli said that in the coming decades, self-driving technology would be used for local taxis, personal cars, ride sharing, cargo, goods delivery and public transport. “Studies show that a city the size of Dubai could provide all of its trips with 90% less cars, as long as those cars were used like a self-driving taxi fleet,” he said.

“Self-driving vehicles will help make the roads safer, more efficient and more enjoyable. They also enable us to think differently about how the transport system operates: could we end up with autonomous buses that travel a different route every time and pick up and drop off as many people as possible?”

Al Aleeli said the UAE was also set to utilise fast transport systems, such as the Hyperloop, to provide rapid journeys between large cities. “This will have tremendous value for a city like Dubai,” he added. “We wouldn’t need to build so many roads to accommodate the growth we have planned in the near future.”

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In a preliminary test in September this year, Dubai’s Road and Transport Authority (RTA) trialled a public driverless vehicle in the city’s Downtown area. Running along a 700-metre trial route, the driverless vehicle provided free rides to all commuters. Built jointly by Omnix International and Easy Mile, the autonomous shuttle, dubbed EZ10, is an electric vehicle that can run in either direction as it has no specific front or rear.

Ahmed Hashem Bahrozyan, CEO at the RTA, said the successful trial run of the smart vehicle was the first phase of many to come. “The passengers showed high levels of satisfaction and we received a lot of positive feedback,” he said. “The RTA is currently finalising a detailed roadmap of the driverless vehicles in Dubai and an overall plan to implement this technology in the city.”

Bahrozyan said reducing traffic jams was considered one of the main benefits of driverless vehicles because much of Dubai’s congestion is caused by accidents and reckless driving. “In the UAE, we hope to use driverless technology to increase overall safety, reduce traffic congestion, increase vehicle utilisation, increase accessibility, and show the world that Dubai is a truly smart city,” he added.

Hazem Allahham, director of government and general business at Omnix International, agreed that the UAE trial had been a success, noting that the EZ10 could have many uses across the Middle East. “For now, the vehicles that we provide are ‘last mile’ vehicles,” he said. “They are designed to drive at low speeds to transport passengers on the last leg of their destination, either to or from a public network point.”

Although Allahham said he was pleased with the trial run, he said the vehicles “are not to be run on main roads or even residential roads for now” and should be confined to specific routes in campus, or within specific boundaries.

Self-driving electric pods

In another move towards automated transport in the region, local app-based taxi booking service Careem has teamed up with NEXT Future Transportation to bring “battery-powered, self-driving electric pods” to the Middle East and North Africa. NEXT’s pods are described as a modular transport system and can drive individually or attached to others to form a bus-like structure, allowing passengers to move between the linked vehicles.

Careem said the pods would be safer, more efficient and more environmentally friendly than today’s vehicles and would reduce congestion. They were primarily designed for mass transportation from door to door and would mean quicker and more efficient daily commuting in the UAE, he said.

Camil Tahan, principal with Strategy& (formerly Booz & Company), said that as self-driving technology continued to develop across the Middle East, regional transport bodies should prepare to draw up regulations for autonomous driving technology.

“The technology still needs to evolve and requires further testing for it to be fully approved by regulators,” he said. “Transport authorities can help to expedite the progress by piloting self-driving technologies and incentivising the private sector to help test them as well.

“This will promote understanding of the benefits and drawbacks of the technology, and will significantly help to improve the technology over time.”

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