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Driverless Dubai: From Dream to Debut

New “Pods” encourage Dubai to introduce autonomous mass-transit

Imagine this: you are running late for a meeting at your office so you pull out your smartphone to request a ride from a car-booking application. Gazing down the busy street, you see a large box zipping through traffic heading towards you. Stopping in front of your home, its sliding doors open, you step inside, the doors close, and you are off to work. Fully electric and fully autonomous, this “uber of the future” sounds like the stuff of science fiction.

But this could become the standard commute in Dubai beginning in 2020. Using in-wheel motors, the pods, which can fit 10 people – six sitting, four standing – have the ability to steer like a car and can even parallel park. They feature heating, air conditioning, screens, and can be customized to be outfitted with a coffee machine.

Driving along city streets and even highways, these centipede-looking vehicles, which were designed and created by Italian physicist and industrial designer, Tommaso Gecchelin, 31, are the future of mass transportation as they can be used for both individual service, like Uber, and mass-transport, like city buses.

“The idea is to add something shared,” Gecchelin told The Media Line. “So, it’s easier to sell this kind of car to public transportation services because they want to optimize traffic as well as the number of people.”

Uber’s Middle Eastern rival, Careem, has teamed up with Gecchelin’s company, Next Future Transportation, to bring these pods to life. This partnership is intended to promote Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid’s vision to make a quarter of all transportation in the Emirate of Dubai driverless by 2030.

“In Dubai, when the Sheikh makes a promise, they (the city) deliver on time,” Amar Ramadan, a senior researcher at the International Association of Public Transport (UITP) in Dubai, said.

Dubai, the rapidly developing, oil-rich, coastal Emirate, is known for having some of the worst traffic congestion in the world. The pods could replace private cars and taxis. They can run individually or, on heavily trafficked routes, have the ability to attach themselves to one another.

“(They) use a camera-based optical system to align the vehicles together when they are moving on the road. They are tracking one another so the connection is just virtual up to the moment that they are very close to one another. And, when they are close enough, there is a physical connection (between the two pods) for safety,” Gecchelin said.
One single pod can reach roughly 40 miles per hour; however, when the pods connect themselves together, they can even whiz along the highways, ultimately reaching speeds of 75 miles per hour.

While Gecchelin has teamed up with Careem to offer driverless rides, similar to taxis or Uber, which can be requested through Careem’s mobile app, the industrial designer also believes these pods can also run as buses providing more sustainable solutions to public mass transport.

“Basically, you are running a variable capacity bus so you can decide the capacity, and, according to that, you add more units to fit all of the people inside,” Gecchelin said. “This would be like a normal bus with stops.”

The buses, however, would require some type of operator or driver, if the city is not fully prepared for self-driving vehicles.
There are also plans to market these pods for individual consumers, but, the core business plan is for mass transportation, according to Gecchelin.

As autonomous cars have gained popularity recently, especially with companies like Google and Tesla revealing their own versions of self-driving vehicles, some roads and transportation analysts worry about their safety as few have been tested in “real-life situations.”

“It depends where they are, how fast they are going, and how they are being tested,” Ramadan of the UITP told The Media Line. “Because they are still in the testing phase, they haven’t yet been allowed into normal traffic and the cases have been controlled.”

Roads and Transportation Authorities, like the one in Dubai, will have to update traffic laws to accommodate autonomous vehicles.

According to Ramadan, the emirate of Dubai is also testing a 10-seat driverless shuttle service, produced by the France-based company Easy Mile, on Mohammed bin Rashid Boulevard, a touristy street in downtown Dubai close to the Dubai Mall. The vehicle service, which is operated by the Roads and Transportation Authority (RTA), drives on the sidewalk, shuttling passengers up and down a roughly half-mile path.

Founded in 2012 by two businessmen in Dubai, Careem, which is now available in 31 cities across the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia, unveiled these pods at the GITEX 2016, a technology week in October. The week is hosted at the Dubai World Trade Center featuring over 400 start-up companies representing some 60 different countries. Careem was looking for further collaboration and funding in the “City of Gold.”

The pods, which cost roughly $40,000 each, are expected to hit city streets as early as 2020, according to Gecchelin.

Katie Beiter is a student journalist with The Media Line