Making sense of ’driverless’ in the desert

When Masdar Abu Dhabi’s zero carbon city took on the idea of driverless pods  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  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; a conclusion reached in a recent study by Atkins Acuity.

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.

 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.

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; aspects which Atkins Acuity are now discussing openly with many of its clients. 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  – 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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