Autonomy is shaping the Middle East’s transportation future

Heba Hashem

Monday 12 December 2016

Heba Hashem talks to Akin Adamson, Middle East regional director at Transport Research Laboratory, about the future of transportation in the region and how technology is influencing the direction of this fast-evolving sector.

Governments in the Middle East are increasingly favouring automated mass transportation systems to ease traffic congestion in urban areas.

The region is already home to the world’s longest fully automated metro network, the 75-kilometre-long Dubai Metro. The driverless system carries nearly half a million commuters daily, a sevenfold increase since its inception in late 2009.

In Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest subway project is underway, with six lines and a total route length of 175 kilometres. The project in the capital Riyadh will serve the city’s six million inhabitants and include two driverless metro lines when it’s completed by the end of 2018.

Siemens metro train is specially equipped for the extreme climatic conditions in Riyadh. Credit: Siemens

These metro trains have been designed with the region’s climate in mind, integrating special elements to prevent the ingress of sand, and an air conditioning system that can deliver sufficient cooling in extreme heat.

“The majority of Gulf states are increasing their investments in public transport – whether that is in new metro, light rail or tram systems – or in more traditional bus services,” says Akin Adamson, Middle East regional director at British consultancy Transport Research Laboratory.

“These new modes of transport are themselves becoming more technologically advanced, as witnessed by Dubai’s driverless metro system.”

Short and long trips

The RTA is currently looking to deploy a fleet of driverless cars at key areas in Dubai, including metro stations, shopping malls and tourist spots.

The authority has been testing a 10-seater smart vehicle designed to move within closed internal roads at a speed of 10km/h and can travel up to eight continuous hours.

Equipped with a four-directional GPS system, the car uses laser sensors to spot objects 40 metres away, and slows down automatically once it detects an object within two metres. Anything that comes closer than two metres causes the electric vehicle to stop completely.

Already in its third phase of trial runs, the project is part of a strategy to make 25 per cent of all trips in Dubai driverless by 2030. The move is expected to generate up to Dh22 billion a year in economic revenues and savings.

“Dubai, in particular, is leading the way with the very latest autonomous technologies that may see fleets of autonomous pods catering for last-mile services in a relatively small number of years,” Adamson says.

He is referring to Hyperloop One, a new high-speed transport system that promises to take passengers from Dubai to Abu Dhabi in just 12 minutes. The 90-mile trip normally takes about two hours by car.

The California-based company revealed its plans in Dubai on 8 November, when it signed an agreement with the RTA and said it would test a full-scale prototype by next year.

Credit: Hyperloop One

Credit: Hyperloop One

Josh Giegel, president of engineering and co-founder at Hyperloop One, told media during the Dubai press conference: “What Hyperloop One is bringing is speed to the autonomous future. We’re selling time.”

Monitoring fatigue

Technology is also playing a crucial role in improving public transport safety. For example, Abu Dhabi and Qatar taxis now have systems that announce when a driver exceeds the speed limit.

Some buses in the region are also being fitted with technologies that detect driver fatigue and advise when they should take a break.

In Dubai for instance, the ‘Al Raqeeb’ system involves fitting a sophisticated device in front of the bus driver to monitor any signs of tiredness and transmit the data to the RTA, where the case can be immediately dealt with.

Al Raqeeb system to be employed by RTA to monitor fatigue in bus drivers. Credit: Government of Dubai Media Office

Adel Shakri, director of transportation systems at the RTA’s Public Transport Agency, said in a statement: “RTA is the first government entity responsible for public transport to adopt this drivers’ monitoring system. The drop in the exhaustion and fatigue cases experienced by bus drivers by 88 per cent is indicative of the success of the trial phase covering 50 buses in an initial step.”

Another smart system will monitor driving attitudes such as exceeding speed limits, sudden swerving and using mobile phones while driving. The two systems are currently being tested and will eventually be installed in the RTA’s fleet of more than 1500 buses.

Beating traffic

On the other side of the region, technology is simplifying road travel in a different way. In Cairo, a city notorious for its traffic and limited parking capacity, mobile app Rakna offers the only on-demand parking service in the country.

Through the app, users can request a valet driver to meet them at their destination and park their car for them. When they’re ready to leave, they can request their car through the app and the driver will return it. The new app was described by local media as the Uber of parking.

Uber itself is improving mobility in Cairo, where traffic is estimated to cost the country US$8 billion every year, according to the World Bank.

In a 2014 report, the World Bank cited the prevalence of private cars and poor traffic management as the main reasons for the city’s congestion.

Uber only launched in Egypt two years ago, but it is quickly gaining traction in the populous country. Today, nearly 20 per cent of passenger transport in Greater Cairo is conducted through the ride-sharing app.

According to Adamson, data availability, such as public transport schedules and wayfinding, is becoming more prevalent, with a growing number of apps helping travellers make better use of public transport systems.

However, he noted that many Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states still lag in making their ‘public’ data available to application developers who have traditionally driven innovation in this space.

Hyperloop’s Giegel stressed the time factor and the growing importance it will have in future transport modes: “Even in a world where I can go from my door to your door autonomously, I’m still going to care about how long it takes.”