Welcome to the future: a peek into Dubai’s driverless shuttle bus

Dubai pedestrians were treated to a surprise glimpse into the future recently, with a sleek, driverless vehicle offering free lifts along Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Boulevard.
For the trial run the shuttle covered a 700-metre stretch between a stop opposite Dubai Opera and Vida Downtown Dubai hotel. Courtesy RTA
For the trial run the shuttle covered a 700-metre stretch between a stop opposite Dubai Opera and Vida Downtown Dubai hotel. Courtesy RTA

Dubai pedestrians were treated to a surprise glimpse into the future recently, with a sleek, driverless vehicle offering free lifts along Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Boulevard.

The vehicle was part of a public transport trial by the emirate’s Roads and Transport Authority (RTA). The automated, 12-passenger shuttle bus carried passengers down a 700-metre stretch, between a stop opposite Dubai Opera and the Vida Downtown Dubai hotel.

Ahmed Bahrozyan, chief executive of RTA’s licensing agency, says hundreds of passengers filled out surveys assessing their confidence in the driverless experience.

“We’re looking for things like, when people use this shuttle bus, how confident are they in a vehicle that is being driven by itself; how confident are they that, in the future, these types of vehicles will actually be on the road, serving people?

The RTA also wanted to gauge whether people saw these systems as fads, or actual vehicles that will become mainstays in future mobility systems.

Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Boulevard was selected because the vehicle isn’t ready to navigate public roads or negotiate its way around other vehicles. The bus did, however, navigate around pedestrians and cyclists – using GPS and sensors to detect what speed it should travel at.

Bahrozyan says the width of the pavement and the relatively long 700-metre stretch made for a perfect testing ground. “Where there are restaurants, for example, it actually reduces speed. In areas where there are no restaurants, it increases speed.”

The current version of the vehicle, which has six seats and space for up to six more people to stand, has a maximum speed of 21kph. The trial vehicle spent most of its time going between 10kph and 20kph, but Easymile, a European partner in the project, is developing a newer model that will reach almost double that speed.

The vehicle’s sensors allows it to “be continuously aware of what’s happening around it at a radius of about 40 metres,” says Bahrozyan. However, the vehicle didn’t react to every object within this radius, he adds.

“As the object gets closer and gets within a vicinity of two metres in any direction, the vehicle has the ability to reduce speed, and obviously if it gets closer than that, it can stop as well. So it’s extremely safe – we’ve had no incidents at all to indicate anything other than it’s a very safe system.”

So far, he says, the driverless vehicle seems even “safer than having a human being sitting behind the wheel”.

The shuttle is fully electric, and while the same vehicle could operate for up to nine hours in cooler climates, the constant need for air conditioning in Dubai meant it had to be recharged every four hours. The RTA operated the vehicle daily from 6pm to 10pm, before taking it to an on-site charging station to get it ready for the next day.

“The weather was still a bit warm, so we didn’t have as many people as we would in the cooler months, but that is the time of day when you would expect more people to be there and that’s what we wanted people to experience,” says Bahrozyan.

Aside from the two main stops, there were two others in between “to give people a flavour of how these buses can operate without a driver”.

The RTA had an operator present at all times, but this was more as a precaution, Most of the operator’s time was spent answering questions and making sure the trial was running smoothly.

The Downtown Dubai trial followed two trials conducted in the Dubai World Trade Centre area, which also went well.

“The survey results from the previous trials were very impressive, and most of them were around 90 per cent or higher in terms of how confident people on-board such shuttle buses were that this is a safe mode of transport,” says Bahrozyan.

“Having achieved credibility in always being on top of things, from a technology point of view, there was a high level of confidence that Dubai Government would make this come to reality in the future.”

Participants also felt that driver­less public transport would add to the experience of Dubai’s pedestrians.

The RTA is now in talks with various developers, assessing spaces that could be an appropriate fit for future trials.

“We have to find areas where the routes are relatively simple, just for us to get a feel for what the vehicle can do.”

As the march towards widespread driverless vehicles continues, the UAE is positioning itself to take full advantage of future technology.

In Abu Dhabi

Last month, Britain held its first public driverless vehicle test in Milton Keynes. Although driverless innovations are starting to gain traction all over the world, the UAE is already familiar with the technology.

In 2010, Masdar City captured the imagination when it began piloting its personal rapid transit (PRT) cars. While Masdar has scaled back on the project, Masdar Institute maintains a fleet of PRT cars.

These driverless vehicles transport visitors at speeds of up to 40kph using a complex navigation system that detects magnets installed in corridors, aided by sensors, and a wireless connection to a central computer.

The vehicles are being studied by the institute as part of its research into large-scale deployment of sustainable public transportation systems.

One of Abu Dhabi’s upcoming projects, announced in June, is the arrival of the SkyTran PRT system on Yas Island. SkyTran is a two-person vehicle that’s not only devoid of a driver, but also wheels. Instead, the floating pods will use magnetic levitation to achieve speeds of up to 241kph.

This system will give Yas Island a public transportation option that’s cheaper and more sustainable than traditional offerings. Miral, which manages Yas Island’s leisure attractions, says the SkyTran system will eventually connect multiple destinations, including Abu Dhabi International Airport.

Mohammed Abdulla Al Zaabi, chief executive of Miral, adds: “While we continue to build world-class destinations and ­expand Yas Island, it is imperative that we are able to implement an urban transportation solution, which is not only ­energy-efficient but also adds another level of excitement to our visitors’ experiences.”


Published: November 3, 2016 04:00 AM


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