Masdar City’s driverless cars system celebrates milestone

Autonomous passenger travel is seen as the next big thing in transport but in one part of Abu Dhabi, driverless cars have been ploughing a cutting-edge furrow for years.

Karim Karam, professor of engineering systems management, sits in a driverless vehicle at the Masdar Institute in Abu Dhabi. Christopher Pike / The National
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For all the hoo-hah about the coming transport revolution that will see driverless vehicles populating the world’s roads, in one corner of Abu Dhabi, the whole idea is, really, very last year.

Well, very 2010, to be precise.

The Masdar City Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) system has celebrated its 6th anniversary, just after carrying its 2 millionth passenger.

The PRT’s driverless pods have covered a distance of more than 891,879km on their transit route over the past six years, and have displaced CO2 emissions equivalent to running 53 cars for a whole year, Masdar said.

Masdar’s executive director of sustainables real estate Yousef Baselaib greeted Geethma Devangee, the lucky 2 million milestone passenger, as the pod she was riding in completed its journey from the North Car Park station to dock at Masdar Institute. Ms devangee, a student from Merryland School Abu Dhabi, was visiting Masdar City as part of an educational tour with her school.

Mr Baselaib said: “This achievement stands as a true testament to our culture of innovation,” said Mr Baselaib. “The popularity of the PRT demonstrates how functional sustainable urban transport development is paving the way for cities of the future.”

Although driverless personal transport may be somewhat passe for users of the PRT system, Masdar is certainly not resting on its laurels.

Over the years a wealth of data has been collected from the PRT system which has been used to further the development of autonomous vehicles, both in relation to the technology and user interaction.

“Real-life applications are invaluable for the reliability of the resulting information,” said the chief executive of the PRT manufacturer 2getthere, Carel van Helsdingen. “Where a demonstration only provides an indication of the way passengers interface with a system, a real-life application shows real-world behaviour.

“At Masdar City we have both daily passengers and first-time users, from 6am until midnight, with the requirement to constantly provide a reliable and high service level under difficult environmental conditions. As a result we have gained significant knowledge to support autonomous vehicle development.”

The system is currently carrying five times the originally anticipated number of passengers, averaging close to 90 per cent occupancy rates during morning and afternoon peak hours.

The pods are controlled by an advanced navigation system that uses magnets embedded in the roadway while onboard sensors detect any obstacles in their path. They are powered by a battery that recharges while the pods are standing in the stations between trips.

As proponents of driverless vehicles often point to, the safety of autonomous vehicles makes standard road vehicles seem very dangerous indeed. Each year an average 1.3 million people are killed in traffic accidents, according to the Association for Safe International Road Travel.

In the six years and almost 1 million kilometres of operations, there has not been one accident or collision involving the Masdar pods.

Phase 1A of the PRT project is approximately 1.4 km long and features two stations: the North Car Park; and the Masdar Institute for Science and Technology. 2getthere is set to expand this network across more sites across the City, as well as introducing a General Rapid Transit system in the near future.

So perhaps those touting the rise of driverless cars as a brave new dawn should temper their outlooks; for some, that dawn broke years ago.

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