Dubai set to get major robot bus network

A Dutch company has won the contract for a new automated transport network in the emirate that will see driverless buses ferry passengers to and from Bluewaters Island.

25 of 2getthere’s third-generation driverless GRT vehicles are set to operate on a new Dubai bus network linking Nakheel Harbor and Tower station to Bluewaters Island. Courtesy 2getthere
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The company that created the futuristic driverless pods operating underneath Masdar City in Abu Dhabi has secured a contract for a much larger, driverless bus network connecting Bluewaters Island to Dubai’s metro.

The joint venture 2getthere Middle East, between the Dutch automated transport firm 2getthere and the Abu Dhabi-based United Technical Services (UTS), is to deliver a 2.5km-long guided network from the Nakheel Harbour & Tower station over the new ramp on to Bluewaters Island.

“Fundamentally, advanced transit is the transportation of people (and goods) in a way that is superior to conventional transit,” says the Advanced Transit Association, an international non profit group of which 2getthere is a member.

Carel van Helsdingen, the chief executive of Utrecht-based 2gettthere, said the system it is developing for Bluwaters Island’s developer Meraas Holding will involve a network of 25 Group Rapid Transport (GRT) vehicles – each of which is capable of carrying 24 passengers per trip. He said the value of the contract signed was confidential.

Mr van Helsdingen told The National the system will be capable of carrying 2,500 passengers per hour in each direction.

“And it’s 20-hour operational – [there’s] only a four-hour shutdown.”

The system developed for Bluewaters is a point-to-point delivery network, but with an option to extend in the future. Vehicles have rapid-charge lithium-ion batteries that recharge at stations.

The GRTs will run on the new bridge link between Bluewaters Island and Sheikh Zayed Road, but will be separated by barriers from regular traffic. The network is due to become operational in late 2018/early 2019.

“It’s taken one and a half years for the whole engineering and design of the prototype. We’re starting to build the series for Dubai as of July, but two prototypes are already almost finished and we will test them in Utrecht,” he added.

The driverless vehicles will operate using the same method as the Masdar City pods, with a series of magnets embedded into the road network along the route. Mr van Helsdingen said that was a more accurate methods of operating than relying either on GPS satellites or laser-guided systems that can be affected by the weather. A magnetic reader under each vehicle measures the position of its vehicle every 50 milliseconds and adjusts its position accordingly.

Mr van Helsdingen’s company, 2getthere, has been operating automated people-moving vehicles since 1996, when a system was created to carry passengers from long-stay parking sites at Schipol Airport to terminal buildings. Before that, he had developed automated guided vehicles for moving containers around a terminal at the Port of Rotterdam.

“We’re talking about 20 years ago, whereas four or five years ago Google started to ring all of the bells and say, ‘We have autonomous vehicles’. I think we were the front-runner.

“But the problem with being ahead of your time is the market is not ready yet for it. You really have to survive and to prove that you can continue delivering until the market is there.”

The personal rapid transport (PRT) system underneath Masdar City was launched in 2010.

2getthere has also been running a GRT system linking Rotterdam’s metro station to a business park in the city for 12 years – a project that was recently renewed and extended.

Mr van Helsdingen’s company last year received a €4m (Dh15.7m) investment from the operator of Singapore’s metro and bus network, SMRT, for a 20 per cent stake in his company, while UTS upped its stake in the business to 11 per cent. He said a deal involving SMRT in Asia (although not in Singapore) for a 60-unit system is expected to be signed in September this year.

UTS’s chief operating officer Ziad Al Askari said its Middle East joint venture is “also working out in Qatar and Saudi Arabia” assessing other opportunities.

“There’s a lot of projects in the region that are under discussion,” Mr Al Askari said.

A study published by Bank of America Merrill Lynch last week on the future of transport argued that the US$7 trillion sector was “ripe for disruption”, with some developed countries like the United States already witnessing a decline in car journeys. It said vehicle miles travelled peaked in the US in 2005, and per capita ownership dropped by 6.3 per cent between 2006 and 2012.

Beija Ma, a thematic investing strategist at BofA Merrill Lynch’s global research unit, said the rising financial, social and environmental costs of car ownership were “unsustainable and demand a fundamental rethink of mobility”.

The same report also highlighted the UAE as a front-runner in driverless vehicles, citing Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai’s target for 25 per cent of all journeys to be driverless by 2030.

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