Imagine waking up in the year 2030. Today, a car you’ve hired will drive you to your meeting in Abu Dhabi from your home in Dubai. It identifies Sheikh Zayed Road as the quickest, safest and most energy-efficient route, picks up your colleagues on the way, parks where it detects an empty spot through communications with a smart connected system and pays for parking through digital currency – while you take a nap in the back seat.
This scenario is no sci-fi fantasy according to professor Karim Karam, 38, who is exploring smart mobility within cities at the Department of Engineering Systems Management at Abu Dhabi's Masdar Institute of Science and Technology.
Prof Karam thinks we may start seeing the first driverless cars on the UAE’s road by the time Expo 2020 comes to Dubai.
Google has a driverless car being piloted in the US; Apple is reported to be working on prototypes of its own, and Mercedes-Benz is testing a self-driving lorry.
"If Apple is working on it, then you know something is going to happen," says Prof Karam.
Such innovation could have far-reaching implications for the UAE, from cutting operating costs for companies to reducing the need for car ownership for residents.
“If the technology is available and it helps us in delivering, we’ll look at it,” says Ronaldo Mouchawar, the Syrian chief executive of souq.com, the largest e-commerce platform in the Arab world. “It could change delivery quite a bit. Driverless cars will be something that the consumer will use in the future sharing economy, where you don’t even have to own the car – it may be that you order it, it comes to you, you use it to go somewhere and then you let it go.”
In fact the UAE’s own sustainable technology pioneers at Masdar Institute paved the way in terms of robotic car systems. Its podcars, which follow preprogrammed routes and are guided by magnetic sensors buried in the concrete floor, have been ferrying people to and from the car park to the institute since 2010.
“Our driverless car system is pretty outdated now,” says Prof Karam, from Lebanon. “But when installed, it was the most advanced system in the world. We are now in the process of developing a more modern driverless car system in conjunction with MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology], with the intention to use it at Masdar City in the future.”
While the existing podcars, known as a personal rapid transit system, had already carried 1 million passengers by 2014, Prof Karam is hesitant to put a timeline on the larger scale system being developed for Abu Dhabi’s planned “zero carbon city” at Masdar.
But rolling the technology out to the wider community will have its challenges, such as developing a concept that is energy-efficient and safe.
“Probably the most significant obstacle is their psychological acceptance by humans,” says Prof Karam. “Aeroplanes today can fly themselves for the most part. For some reason we trust in aeroplanes, but we find it more difficult to trust in cars.”
People might worry that a driverless car’s software may malfunction, but Prof Karam claims that fully automated cars will be much safer than current vehicles and simpler to manage. “As the car will communicate with you all the time, you’ll be able to better service it because it’ll let you know if something is wrong. It’ll send you diagnostics so you can optimise its performance.”
And 3D printing technology will also ease the maintenance hassles.
“There will no longer be the problem of ‘I can’t use my car because I need to wait for a spare part’ because people will be able to print their own spare part”, says Prof Karam.
Another company that could benefit from the next wave of automation is the Dubai-based Transcorp International, whose drivers transport about 1,000 chilled deliveries on the UAE’s roads every week.
Transcorp’s chief executive Rodrigue Nacouzi, who is Lebanese, says replacing his current fleet of 25 vehicles with self-driving models could reduce his operating costs by at least 20 per cent, and increase overall productivity by a further 20 per cent.
“Auto piloting would eliminate the human driving errors caused by fatigue and distraction, which would lessen the risk of accidents,” he says. “This would automatically affect our insurance costs and premiums. Our maintenance and repair costs would go down, with less defects and faults caused by harsh driving behaviours.”
At Masdar Institute, Prof Karam says when Masdar City is up and running as a hub for clean tech companies, their new fleet of driverless cars will provide a perfect testing ground for enthusiasts to trial the new technology for themselves.
“I think people will look at them as a novelty at first,” he adds. “Introducing them on a smaller scale, in a prototype city like Masdar City, would help people to be able to come and see them, try them out, become more accepting of them – and then probably choose to extend their use.”
Follow The National's Business section on Twitter