A driverless future

Is the GCC ready for autonomous vehicles? Tesla’s Elon Musk says yes, and the RTA agrees. But what will it mean for the region’s motorists?

“By next year, you’ll be able to travel anywhere in the GCC with an electric vehicle.” Elon Musk was in Dubai earlier this year for the World Government Summit as well as the local launch of Tesla and his promise should be heeded.

When South African-born Musk, tech pioneer and Martian colonist in the making, got bored with his work commute recently, he started fantasising on Twitter about a network of tunnels under California so he would never have to sit in a traffic jam again. Within a month he had founded The Boring Company and started, well, boring. When he couldn’t get his head around the internet economy, he founded PayPal. When he wanted to go to space, he founded SpaceX and when he couldn’t buy the car he wanted, he made his own. Musk says what he means and does what he says.

Next year we will be able to travel anywhere in the GCC with an electric vehicle. Dubai’s Roads and Transport Authority (RTA) has already ordered 200 zero-emissions Tesla vehicles for the city’s taxi fleet, cars that produce no carbon dioxide and happen to come with an added benefit: all are built preloaded with software and hardware to enable fully autonomous, driverless mobility.

RTA’s director general and chairman of the board Mattar Al Tayer says the cars are only a small part of the city’s Smart Autonomous Mobility Strategy, which aims to transform 25 per cent of total vehicle journeys made in Dubai into autonomous journeys by the year 2030. This is quite a bullish target to achieve since most commentators don’t expect autonomous cars to achieve significant market share over the next 15 years or so.

Even bosses of the biggest car giants are not convinced. Autonomous vehicle testing is largely done in closed areas instead of public roads, where bigger gains in research are to be made. In the US, driverless vehicles are undergoing real-world tests on limited public roads in the states of California and Michigan, where America’s big three – General Motors, Ford and Chrysler – reside. Speaking at the Chicago car show earlier this year, General Motors’ president Dan Ammann stressed the only way to make progress towards a future where you can catch up on The Simpsons season 44 during your commute is through more testing.

“To make autonomous vehicles the best they can be and the safest they can be,” says Ammann, “we really need to be testing on public streets. It needs to be public streets in a real world environment.” Dubai, it seems, gets that.

So far the public has taken to semi-autonomous driving features enthusiastically, with most luxury cars premiering safety systems that apply the brakes automatically should the car detect obstacles or pedestrians and that keep the vehicle in its designated lane without veering in case the driver is too tired to keep things straight. This adaptation to semi-autonomous driving features means people will be more receptive to fully-autonomous vehicles once they do come around, especially since the tech will start trickling down to cheaper cars eventually too.

“Dubai’s Roads and Transport Authority has already ordered 200 zero-emissions Tesla vehicles for the city’s taxi fleet, all preloaded with software to enable fully autonomous, driverless mobility”

However, we have a long way to go. On the journey to driverless cars, we are not even halfway there. Autonomous cars are classified from level 0 to 5, the former being a normal car with no automatic control. At level 5, the car needs absolutely no human intervention to get about. We are currently somewhere between levels 2 and 3. Audi, for example, aims to release a level 3 classification semi-autonomous car by 2020.

The German premium manufacturer’s cross-country rivals Mercedes-Benz share a similar vision. At January’s Detroit motor show in Michigan, one of the largest on the annual calendar, Mercedes’ head of research and development Ola Källenius agreed level 3 cars are next. Mercedes, however, has already completed a Dubai-Abu Dhabi jaunt fully autonomously (with, of course, a back-up human behind the wheel) using no more than a current production E-Class saloon you can buy from a dealership right now.

“Level 4 and level 5,” says Källenius, “will be coming in a big commercial way between 2020 and 2025.”

Dubai, then, with the RTA’s Tesla deal, will be at the forefront of self-driving research. All Tesla cars currently being manufactured, be it the $75,000 Model S saloon or the flagship $93,000 Model X SUV, roll out of the company’s Californian plant with onboard autonomous hardware, which includes cameras, radars and sensors. Through the wonders of the internet, Tesla then keeps updating the car’s software wirelessly, with each update bringing improvements to the car’s autonomous behaviour.

Tesla collects data from all the cars it puts on public roads and the 200 examples making their way to Dubai’s taxi fleet will form a valuable test-bed. The city wants to be a world leader in autonomous transport by 2030. Dubai Metro – the world’s longest driverless metro network, transporting 600,000 passengers a day – gives Dubai a head start before city officials phase in driverless trams as well. The next step is introducing autonomous buses to join the city’s public transport fleet and covering last-mile gaps with electric vehicle rentals such as EKar, the Middle East’s first pay-as-you-go hourly car rental and Udrive, which currently offers rentals charged by the minute.

This move toward a driverless urban environment by the government is welcome backing for full autonomy but it will be the private sector that dictates growth. On the subject of demand, the world’s car giants are vague. All agree we will have highly autonomous cars by about 2020 but that is all they agree on.

In any case, the driverless wheels are set in motion – the global collision avoidance system market, for example (the technology that largely dictates semi-autonomous and autonomous decision-making) is soaring and is expected to reach a value of $19 billion by 2025 once the projected level 5 products start appearing.

For anyone who has experienced a Dubai rush hour, technology to prevent accidents is good news. Human error currently accounts for 90 per cent of all accidents, according to the United Nations.

Let’s face it, we are terrible at driving. All we have to do now is learn to let go.