Driverless delivery could transform the Gulf

Autonomous transportation offers a solution to many problems in the region

A year ago, at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, countries around the world experienced a surge in the demand for home delivery services. As The National reported at the time, the boom resulted in a corresponding rise in motorcycle accidents.

In a world where economic growth relies on getting cargo from A to B as quickly possible, road-based delivery services have become critical infrastructure, and it is no wonder that the sector is growing. But without a rethink of how these services are performed, road-based transportation will continue to carry significant risk – to those employed in the sector, as well as wider society.

Part of the answer will lie in frontier technologies, including artificial intelligence and autonomous vehicles. This week, as the Gulf Information Technology Exhibition (Gitex), got under way in Dubai, visitors to the conference were treated to a preview of autonomous delivery robots that may soon appear on the city’s streets. They use an array of AI-based sensors to navigate urban environments, follow traffic rules and calculate safe distances from surrounding traffic.

The robots were some of this year’s entries for the Dubai World Challenge for Self-Driving Transport, a competition held by the Dubai Roads and Transport Authority, and were manufactured all over the world. The companies developing them boasted that they would not only boost road safety, but also cut emissions (inefficient driving contributes to pollution) and reduce costs. As the Gulf region looks to develop policies that counter climate change and rising inflation in consumables – particularly food – all of this would spell good news. It is also in line with the desires of the UAE to further advance its economy by taking advantage of the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution, in which automation is foundational.

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Road-based delivery services have become critical infrastructure

While the delivery robots showcased at Gitex are better suited to the smaller streets of inner-city Dubai, other technologies to transform the long-haul logistics sector have developed rapidly, too. In the GCC, where upwards of 1 million lorries transport most of the region’s overland cargo, self-driving heavy-goods vehicles could one day prove to be a game-changer.

Marketing such vehicles to GCC-based companies may appear to be a challenge, given that relatively cheap petrol in the region continues to make long-haul trucking much more affordable for logistics companies than in other markets. But according to PWC, a global consultancy, driverless lorries could save GCC firms between 15 and 20 per cent of their overall costs, when considering all factors, including the risk of injury to drivers and costly pay-outs in the event of accidents.

While the majority of traffic accidents in the region involve passenger vehicles, it is estimated that between 5 and 10 per cent involve lorries, and that accidents involving these are far more injurious or deadly. And as with any vehicle, the overwhelming majority of lorry accidents involve human error – a problem that autonomous vehicles will eventually solve.

The shift to autonomous vehicles will be an uphill battle for some time; driving is a difficult habit to kick for many, and individual consumers have to be convinced, one by one. But it will inevitably be critical not only for public safety, but for sustainability and long-term economic health. The logistics space, where mass-adoption lies in the hands of a few major players, will play an important role in speeding up the transition. And the GCC, where the benefits are obvious and governments are already demonstrating the long-term vision required for sweeping change, is a good place for this technology to find a home.

Published: October 19th 2021, 3:00 AM