Not too long ago, Tesla Model S and General Motors Chevy Bolt have been involved in two separate road accidents in California. Tesla bumped into the rear of a fire engine, and General Motors hit a motorbike trying to move from one lane to the other. Both cars were on auto-pilot model.
Following the incident, Tesla declared to the BBC that the autopilot is intended for use with a fully attentive driver, while General Motors claimed the motorbiker moved into the car’s way too quickly.
Despite such incidents, a study released by David Groves, a senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation, a global policy think tank, revealed that hundreds of thousands of lives could be saved by self-driving cars, “even if regulators allow less-than-perfect cars on the road. Even though we can’t predict the future, we found it’s really hard to imagine a future where waiting for perfection doesn’t lead to really big opportunity costs in terms of fatalities.”
Another report by McKinsey & Company, Ten ways autonomous driving could redefine the automotive world, revealed a futuristic plan for automated vehicles (AVs) as the figure shows below:
The same report also indicates other factors that make automated vehicles beneficial for societies. Some of these benefits include a decrease in labor cost and a reduction of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions as AVs cut emissions by 60 percent; a decrease in the need for finding parking spaces as they do not require a space to drop off passengers, allowing them to occupy parking spaces that are 15 percent tighter; and most importantly a decrease in accident rate by 90 percent.
These figures may not cover the Arab region, but AVs are being tested in a number of regional countries. By 2030, the UAE hopes to have one out of four residents (25 percent) using AVs, according to a strategy for the future of transportation set by His Highness Sheikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum. The initiative, named Dubai Autonomous Transportation Strategy, could save the Emirate up to 22 billion Dirhams (around US $6 billion) and reduce accidents by 12 percent.
Under the umbrella of this initiative, taxi-hailing app Careem will be introducing driverless pods or units, that move separately or by attaching to other pods, to form a ‘train’ vehicle on demand.
The pods were recently showcased at the World Government Summit in Dubai. “We are under negotiations with our partner Next, on when we might be able to launch here. [The pods] might have drivers versus being autonomous. Both options are on the table,” said Bassel Al Nahlaoui, Managing Director of Careem Gulf.
This big project will be capital-intensive, according to Al Nahlaoui, and needs to a defined regulation framework for it to operate. “We are aiming to launch in 2020, with a closed pilot in 2019 in areas that target last mile solutions - so close to Metro stations for instance,” he clarified. “We won’t be the operators, we are the technology partners to enable people to book the pods on demand via our app.”
Next, which provides a modular transportation solution that can move people and goods using connected modules, will be in charge of manufacturing the pods, designing it and owning the intellectual property, according to Al Nahlaoui, and Careem will get the pods to the market by allowing users to book them using their app, just like they use it to book taxis.
Saudi Arabia’s $100 billion King Abdullah Economic City, which is being built on the coast of the Red Sea, will be reassessing its master plan to include driverless cars. This mega project, which will be fully completed in 2020, will bring advanced infrastructure, industrial and educational zones, a port, a sea resort, business districts, among other components.
“Driverless cars valet park themselves. There will be no need to open doors, self-parking cars can park in much closer, or even be stacked on top of each other. This would mean much more profit-generating retail, commercial or residential spaces in developments,” said Raj Achan, the business development director at the architecture practice Goettsch Partners in the Middle East and India in an interview with The National.
Self-driving cars would also open new doors for women in Saudi Arabia as such cars don’t require a driver - be it male of female - which brings more mobility to Saudi women. They would also empower the elderly and the people with special needs.
Preventing car accidents
Derq, while it’s only a software that helps drivers on the road, aims to prevent accidents from happening in the first place, by notifying the driver of any danger they might encounter, be it a fast car coming their way or any other scenario.
Based in Dubai and Detroit, this MIT-spinoff and Techstars Mobility accelerator alum, developed a software for smart infrastructure, connected, and automated vehicles. It can predict risky driving behaviors and alert cars in real-time using connected vehicles technology.
“Our first V2X [vehicle-to-infrastructure] solution focuses on intersections where more than 40 percent of serious accidents happen yearly in the US, and where our patented machine learning algorithms can predict and prevent nine of 10 dangerous situations. How do we do it? We integrate our software with smart cities infrastructure and vehicles to predict dangerous driving behaviors and alert conventional cars and autonomous vehicles in real-time using connected vehicles technology,” cofounder and CEO Georges Aoude told Wamda.
The software is being tested in Dubai Silicon Oasis Authority (DSOA) since last fall, according to Aoude, who revealed that they have already signed a memorandum of agreement with Roads and Transport Authority (RTA) in Dubai, Smart Dubai Office and DSOA, and are discussing additional project opportunities with them. “We have advanced discussions for pilot opportunities with a number of transport authorities in the US,” he added.
Aoude believes that autonomous vehicles alone do not ensure road safety. “The vehicles themselves need to be very smart and equipped with a suite of sensors (e.g., lidars, cameras, etc.). [They] need to interact with their environment, including communicating with road traffic systems, ‘talking’ with surrounding vehicles, and predicting unusual and risky situations. V2X technologies will provide this connectivity and allow for safer deployment of autonomous vehicles,” he explained commenting on the Tesla Model S and General Motors Chevy Bolt accident.
Smart cities to foster more autonomy
While AVs and sensors could significantly decrease road accidents, their efficiency will highly depend on the abundance of other connected AVs, the adoption rate, and the rise of smart cities.
Worldwide, challenges related to building smart cities are popping up to facilitate the transition into a more connected world. The city of Vancouver and its neighbor Surrey, have both partnered to launch the Smart Cities Challenge, an application that allows people to submit ideas on how to make the cities more connected. It will be seeking solutions from residents, entrepreneurs, academic centers, innovation hubs and other entities to make the transition quick. Manchester and Toronto are doing the same.
Zooming in to the region, Saudi Arabia’s Neom smart city will have robots perform duties such as security, transportation, and delivery and will solely rely on wind and solar power. The ambitious project plans to use green transport systems such as a bridge linking Asia to Africa, seawater farming, solar-powered greenhouses, advanced manufacturing to ‘include personalized, fully automated point-to-point transfers, passenger drones, self-learning traffic systems, and other innovations in research and development, supply, transport and infrastructure,’ as mentioned in this article.
The high level role of smart cities would be to decrease human error, to use the earth wealth wisely, and to create a small connected world. For AVs, this would mean decreasing drivers’ role to zero. This poses, however, another challenge related to the ethics and code of conduct while driving. How would an AV ‘behave’ when encountered with one young kid crossing the road suddenly and another elderly individual walking on the ramp? Would it prioritize the person on the ramp or protect the young kid? Time will tell, but for now, it’s good to know we have a solution in the making.