What you need to know about self-driving cars

Semi-autonomous cars could soon be a fixture on the UAE's roads and motorways

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Self-driving cars might seem like something out of a science fiction movie but they are closer to becoming a reality than you might think.

The recent announcement that self-driving taxis will be tested in Abu Dhabi, after Dubai granted permission for licences to try out automated vehicles, means we are closer than ever to seeing driverless cars on the UAE's roads.

The National takes a look at how we are on the verge of embracing the new technology and why we should be excited.

Proper infrastructure is needed first

Semi-autonomous cars, which drive themselves albeit with a human in command behind the steering wheel, could soon become a fixture on Emirati roads and motorways.

“We could have self-driving cars on the roads right now as the technology is there,” said Adam Whitnall, chief executive of car comparison site Drive Ninja.

“The caveat is we are at the level of advancement where human supervision is still required. There still needs to be someone sitting in the driver seat, being alert at all times and ready to assume control of the vehicle.”

We are at the level of advancement where human supervision is still required
Adam Whitnall, car comparison site Drive Ninja

The issue is not around the cars or the technology, it is a matter of having the right infrastructure in place, Mr Whitnall said.

“When you have well-defined lanes and clearly marked barriers and signs it’s not so much of an issue,” he said.

“However, once you go on to roads where the markings are not so clear, it becomes more of a challenge.

‘Without that guidance, the onboard cameras and sensors can struggle, so it’s a question of getting the road infrastructure in place. We’re going to probably see a hybrid approach at first where cars only drive autonomously on some roads.”

The UAE’s road network is better placed than most though to adapt to the change, he added.

Interacting with other cars that do not have the same technology is also a significant hurdle, Mr Whitnall said.

“How does an autonomous car communicate with one that’s 20 years old with more primitive technology onboard?” he said.

“That’s going to be a huge challenge. We are not going to get to the stage where cars drive themselves without any human supervision until all vehicles are able to communicate with each other.

“There is also the issue of people actually being able to afford to buy cars that have this kind of capacity as well.”

When can we let the car fully drive itself?

The thought of going to sleep in the back seat or catching up with emails while the car’s computer takes care of the driving is an attractive one.

It is also not going to happen anytime soon, according to Mr Whitnall.

“We’re still at least a decade away,” he said.

“We are going to get there quickly in terms of the cars themselves but it’s everything else, like the roads and other cars that can’t communicate via the internet that will hold it up.”

Another major concern for regulators is handing complete control of decision-making to an artificial intelligence, which could have serious repercussions in the event of an accident.

“If you’re driving a car and someone walks out in front of you the decision of what to do is made by you,” he said.

“But there is a conundrum for the tech side about what to do in those instances when the car is driving itself and who is responsible in the event of a death.

“That’s a big problem that hasn’t been overcome yet.”

Dubai selects Cruise as exclusive provider of ridehail services. Courtesy Cruise

When will we see driverless cars in the UAE?

Ajman launched a self-driving shuttle bus in the emirate recently, and Abu Dhabi is testing autonomous taxis on Yas Island.

Trials are currently taking place in Dubai, with plans to have as many as 4,000 driverless vehicles on the emirate's roads by 2030.

"The Roads and Transport Authority has conducted several trials across the city," said Ahmed Bahrozyan, chief executive of the Public Transport Agency for Dubai's RTA.

"Earlier this year, we have announced a major deal with GM Cruise to deploy 4,000 robotaxis in Dubai, which is expected to be launched in 2023."

The next step, he said, would be the comprehensive legislation of operating self-driving cars which would be "issued soon".

He said the technology would be gradually introduced until it became a normal way of life on the emirate's roads.

"The safety of the self-driving vehicle passengers and vulnerable roads users is a top priority for RTA," Mr Bahrozyan said.

"Although the designated lanes provide a higher level of safety, as the technology becomes more mature over time, the need for designated lanes will become obsolete."

How long have driverless cars been about?

The answer is a lot longer than you might first think. In 1977, Japanese firm Tsukuba Mechanical created a driverless car that could reach 32 kilometres an hour by tracing white street markers on two vehicle-mounted cameras.

Are self-driving cars already on the roads anywhere else?

In the US there is estimated to be more than 1,400 autonomous cars in use.

This has not been without controversy. Earlier this year, a Tesla car in Houston, Texas was reported to have driven itself into a tree, killing two people.

The UK government approved the use of self-driving vehicles at slow speeds on its motorways in April, using sensors and software to make sure the cars were kept within the correct lanes.

What is the fastest speed recorded by a self-driving car?

That accolade belongs to London car manufacturer Roborace that created an autonomous vehicle that clocked more than 280kph in 2019, receiving official recognition from the Guinness Book of World Records in the process.

Updated: November 30, 2021, 8:24 AM