Driverless air taxis, drones, pods: Dubai puts future tech at heart of transportation

Dubai wants 25 percent of its total transportation to be autonomous by 2030. But that's just the tip of the technology iceberg.
Written by Damian Radcliffe, Contributor

You cannot fault the ambition. While other countries are discussing the rules and regulations surrounding autonomous vehicles, the emirate of Dubai is simply powering ahead with them.

In 2016, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, the vice president and prime minister of the UAE and ruler of Dubai, announced plans for a quarter of all journeys in Dubai to be driverless by 2030.

He described the move as part of a "globally unique model for future cities… turning [Dubai] into the world's biggest laboratory for technology, research and development".

"Smart transportation is intended to be one of the main axes in the achievement of a sustainable economy in the UAE," he said.

Since then, Middle East unicorn Careem, a car-booking app that operates in more than 120 cities across 15 countries, has collaborated with Californian-based NEXT Future Transportation to develop driverless electric pods.

And in September 2017, as ZDNet has reported, Dubai took its automated transport plans into the sky, as it began testing electric taxi drones. The technology, which is expected to come online in the next four to five years, could potentially enable "two passengers to fly on journeys of up to 30 minutes".

Dubai's tech goals

According to the Dubai Future Foundation, implementation of the Dubai Autonomous Transportation Strategy could affect five million daily trips, saving AED22bn ($6bn) in annual economic costs.

The move, which is in line with Dubai's wider strategic goals to position itself as a world-leading Smart City and global innovation hub, is anticipated to lead to a 13 percent increase in individual productivity hours and cut transportation costs by 44 percent, akin to AED900m ($245m) a year.

"It will also help save AED1.5bn [$400m] a year by reducing environmental pollution by 12 percent, as well as generate AED18bn [$4.9bn] in annual economic returns by increasing the efficiency of the transportation sector in Dubai by 2030," the Dubai Future Foundation noted.

SEE: Tech and the future of transportation (ZDNet special report) | Download the report as a PDF (TechRepublic)

Aside from environmental and economic benefits, the strategy is also designed to improve traffic safety.

"In the coming years, cars will drop you off and go on their way. Since they are autonomous, they don't rubberneck. They don't get into accidents. They don't stop to chat with a friend. They just go where they're supposed to go," argued Ari Teman, co-founder of FutureNYC, in a Technology Trends report published by the Dubai Future Academy in 2018.

As a result, the UAE government expects automation will save 396 million hours on transportation trips a year. In a rapidly expanding city with pressure for space, "It will also reduce the spaces allocated for parking", they observe.

How is automation being implemented?

In 2018, Dubai launched a $5m global challenge, the first part of which is looking at tackling first- and last-mile connections. Specifically, that means taking people the last few miles to and from public transportation services, from parking lots at venues, and shuttle services in communities.

The challenge is divided into categories with different funding streams open to industry leaders and startups, as well as UAE and international academic bodies.

Awards, which are expected to be made in late-2019, consist of three larger companies each being allocated $1m, with $1.5m for two successful startups, and $600,000 for universities and academic institutions.

"Participants will have the opportunity to showcase the endurance, reliability, safety, cybersecurity, environmental suitability, and consumer experience of their technologies," the organizers note in their FAQ.

Future challenges will explore marine services, delivery services, and technology innovation.

What else is on Dubai's horizon?

The effort is just one of a number of activities being led by the Dubai Roads and Transport Authority (RTA), the government agency responsible for all roads and public transportation in the Emirate of Dubai.

Earlier in the year, the RTA began testing two six-seater autonomous pods, designed to travel short distances in dedicated lanes. RTA officials have allocated AED1.5m ($410,000) for further research and development of the vehicles.

Produced by the NEXT Future Transportation company, Reuters reported: "The RTA says the autonomous pods would travel on pre-programmed routes in the first few years, but would eventually become accessible for pick up from home using a mobile telephone application."

SEE: The new commute: How driverless cars, hyperloop, and drones will change our travel plans (TechRepublic cover story) | download the PDF version

A video produced by NEXT Future Transportation, showcases the 1,500kg pods, demonstrating their ability to be linked together to create a shared space, or split into different combinations of units, depending on where passengers need to go.

Alongside these efforts, in November 2016, Hyperloop One announced plans to build a 1,200km/h service in the region. If implemented, it could cut the journey between Abu Dhabi and Dubai from two hours to 12 minutes.

Dubai is also experimenting with the possibilities of drone delivery. One potential, but perhaps rather frivolous, example of how this technology might be used was highlighted in 2017 through a one-day trial by Costa Coffee. Customers were able to order drinks from Costa's Jumeirah Beach Road drive-thru store, which in turn were delivered by a 'coffee-copter.'

And, as if that weren't enough, the RTA is working with Uber to launch a passenger service, Uber Elevate, for vertical take-off and landing vehicles. This new on-demand urban air transportation is projected to launch in Dubai in 2020.

The next 50 years for Dubai

These futuristic efforts are not unique to Dubai. In late November 2018, the UAE outlined a series of strategies designed to shape the country over the next 10 years, as well as the next five decades, ahead of UAE Centennial 2071.

"The goal is for the UAE to be the best country in the world by 2071," Shaikh Mohammad said. "The vision's objectives also include the development of education, with a focus on advanced technology and engineering, and instilling an Emirati moral values system in future generations."

Smart transportation is at the heart of that vision, integrated into a wider strategy with four key pillars: education, economy, government development, and community cohesion.

As WAM, the Emirates News Agency, has reported, a separate series of transportation strategies have been agreed by the UAE government.

"The initiatives focus on leveraging advanced technologies to boost the safety and prepare the infrastructure for autonomous vehicles and high-speed means of transportation, while seeking sustainable and environment-friendly alternatives."

Initiatives approved by the Second UAE Government Annual Meeting included the National Policy for Reducing Transport Sector's Emissions, aimed at identifying standards and specifications of electric vehicles, hybrid vehicles and hybrid electric vehicles.

The meeting also agreed the National Strategy for Smart Transportation, designed to ensure integration and compatibility across federal and local levels.

There is also the National Strategy for Regulating the Maritime Sector, which will see the integration between geographical information systems (GIS) and the different maritime data provided by all the local, federal and international partners.

'Our Connected Cities' and other programs have also been designed to enhance the UAE's competitiveness in terms of road connectivity and quality.

Whether all of these efforts will fly, of course, remains to be seen. But Dubai and UAE are clearly driven to make connected, autonomous and smart transportation a success.


Dubai has been testing two six-seater autonomous pods, designed to travel short distances in dedicated lanes. 

Image: NEXT Future Transportation

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