By Lubna Hamdan
Technology firms have been investing in autonomous driving for nearly a century, but is now the time for driverless cars to hit the road?
It may sound like something out of a James Bond movie: you sit in the back seat of your car, shout out the name of your favourite restaurant, and bingo — you are driven there.
But the world of driverless cars is no longer the stuff of movies. According to UAE Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, by 2030 one in four UAE residents will be using a driverless vehicle.
The technology has been in the mix for over 90 years but it is only now revving up.
Technology firm Google has self-driven over 2.4 million km across the US; Singaporean firm nuTonomy recently launched its driverless taxi service; and app-based transportation firm Uber plans to test its self-driving software in Volvo’s vehicles in the coming weeks.
What was once a fictionalised scene in a futuristic motion picture is finally becoming a reality. Yet despite advancements in the world of autonomous driving, many people are still baffled by vehicles that do not require human control.
How do they work? According to technology motoring firm Robert Bosch Middle East, the secret behind driverless cars is in the navigation.
“Driverless cars function through high precision maps that are constantly updated in order for the automated vehicles to function safely,” Robert Bosch Middle East vice president Volker Bischoff explains. “The maps that are needed for highly automated driving are different from the maps in navigation systems in that they are significantly more accurate, down to decimetre precision. They also consist of multiple layers, allowing them to read and analyse much more information from their surroundings than a regular GPS navigation map.
“The maps used for automated driving contain three layers; a base layer, a localisation layer and a planning layer. The base layer is used to calculate routes from A to B, and the localisation layer is used to calculate a vehicle’s position within a lane. The planning layer accounts for lane divider types, traffic signs, speed limits and other data that would otherwise be manually assessed by a driver, and also holds 3D information about road geometry, including curves and slopes, to ensure a smooth ride.
“With the help of this very detailed information, the automated vehicle can decide things such as when and how to change lanes, and what speed to move at.”
Bosch has collaborated with Dutch map and traffic provider TomTom to design such maps. It has already started testing them in Germany, the US and Japan, with a goal for the cars to be driven autonomously on freeways and freeway-like roads by 2020.
But before that can happen, the firm has to find a way to keep the maps up-to-date. In order to do that, it needs to use feedback from fleets of vehicles equipped with the necessary sensors.
“Information about changed road conditions captured through this fleet of vehicles is transferred to a server, verified and entered in the digital map database. The updated map is subsequently fed back to the automated driving vehicle, enabling it to see effectively beyond its sensors,” Bischoff says.
Despite several challenges, the race for autonomous driving in the UAE is already well and truly on. In the past few months, driverless cars have been tested in Downtown Dubai. The cars, named EZ10, were manufactured by France-based firm EasyMile — a joint venture between vehicle manufacturer Ligier Group and high-tech robotics company Robosoft. Each EZ10 can seat ten people and cruise between 25 to 40 km per hour. The cars, brought to the city by the Roads and Transport Authority (RTA) and real estate giant Emaar Properties, will be used to take tourists around Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Boulevard.
According to the RTA, the cars are fitted with safety features and sensors that allow them to change route when necessary and avoid collisions. The experiment is part of the authority’s plan to test the technology under Dubai’s climate. It also intends to educate the public about autonomous car technology.
Officials said the EZ10 is expected to be rolled out across Burj Khalifa, Dubai Mall, Dubai Opera and Souq Al Bahar in its next phase.
The RTA is not alone in the race, however, as Dubai-based booking transportation app Careem revealed in July its partnership with NEXT Future Transportation, Inc to bring a mass transportation system in the form of battery-powered, self-driving pods to the region — starting with the UAE.
The idea is in line with Sheikh Mohammed’s ambitious plan to make 25 percent of all transportation trips in Dubai driverless by 2030.
“It wasn’t just driverless that got us very interested. The modular [strategy] is really more valuable than anything else,” Careem vice president of business development and government relations Bassel Al Nahlaoui says. “Let’s say you’re in JLT, I’m in Dubai Marina, and there’s a few of us in similar locations. And you pick up your phone, you open the Careem app, and you select a pod to come and pick you up. This pod will come, it will pick up a few people from Marina, a few people from JLT, and then they get back on Sheikh Zayed Road and drive to Dubai Mall.
“These pods will connect like a bus, so you can have up to eight pods connected to each other, and then these pods can open up and they become like a bus.
“To maximise efficiency, it’ll say whoever’s going to Deira can go to pod 1; whoever’s going to Dubai Mall can go to pod 2; whoever’s going to Mirdif can take pod 3. So now you’ve picked up people from similar locations, mixed them and moved them to the right pods to maximise efficiency.
“If it was a regular taxi or you were carpooling, you’d have three people who were in Marina and they’re probably going to three different locations; then you’ll have to go to three different locations. But here, you can combine, not only in the pickup but also in the drop off which is very, very unique.”
Careem’s modular strategy is likely to be introduced before driverless cars.
“It can actually go live way, way before driverless technology is going to be accepted globally as a safe mode of transportation. So today, we build these pods, we’ll probably have a driver in them, but they’re still modular right? Let’s get the modular part on the boat and once driverless technology is okay by the regulators, we switch that on,” Al Nahlaoui adds.
“The modular technology could be driverless and it could be with a driver. That’s a choice we can make. Think of it as a switch, literally as a switch.”
Besides its high-tech, futuristic charm, driverless technology is ultimately aimed at being beneficial — targeting issues such as pollution, congestion, and — arguably the most important problem in the region — high transportation costs.
“Our region really lacks infrastructure when it comes to transportation. Dubai is a special case. It probably has one of the best infrastructures in the world when it comes to transportation, but if you look at Careem’s market where today we are in 30 cities all the way from Morocco to Pakistan, there’s a lot of work to be done,” Al Nahlaoui says.
“How do you simplify the lives of people when it comes to transportation? You provide accessibility to them. And the cheaper the price point, the more accessible it is. So if you could bring these driverless cars, you probably can make that price point really low, much lower than it is today. I would assume at least 50 percent cheaper.
“If you remove your highest cost from the equation, you can really reduce the prices of transportation to everyone in a city. It’s to make this even more accessible to our region.”
But as with all fresh technology, challenges exist. And the elephant in the room when it comes to driverless cars, is safety. To the dismay of autonomous technology enthusiasts around the world, motoring giant Tesla had its first driverless car accident — and it was fatal.
In May, a Tesla Model S travelling in Pennsylvania using the autonomous cruise control function, Autopilot, crashed into a tractor-trailer that had turned in front of it. The ‘driver’ of the car, Joshua Brown, marked the first fatality in 210 million km of driving with Autopilot.
“The Q&A process here has to be followed vigorously and repeated a lot to make sure you know it’s not the safety of the car driving only, but the safety of the cars driving around these cars. So the impact is huge if something goes wrong, especially if you look at somewhere like Dubai where the roads allow for high speed because of the high quality of infrastructure,” Al Nahlaoui says.
While Brown’s death was a step back for autonomous car manufacturers globally, another 1.3 million people per year die in car crashes, with about 90 percent of the fatalities caused by human error, according to The Association for Safe International Road Travel (ASIRT).
What may seem like the technology’s prime misfortune may not be its most challenging, however. An arguably bigger issue at hand is an unknown factor — insurance.
“I think that’s always the issue with unmanned vehicles,” Al Nahlaoui says. “Today I know unmanned boats are having a difficulty in finding someone to insure that ride. And I believe we will continue to see these issues until a new set of companies start opening and figuring out a different model where they can insure these driverless vehicles [and determine] whose fault it is.
“If it’s the fault of the technology, who owns the technology? Is it ultimately that or is it, in the case where the vehicle makes a mistake, although they’re claiming the vehicle should never make a mistake. This isn’t as [attractive] as the other topics, which is probably why we don’t hear a lot about it, but I’m sure there are a lot of people thinking about it because at the end this is what’s going to make it happen.”
While chief transportation giants agree that technological advances are underway, others argue that a completely new legal framework might need to be created.
Bosch is one to enter that quarrel, arguing that relieving drivers of responsibility for the vehicle during critical traffic situations can actually save lives. The German motoring firm’s research predicts that increasing automation can lower accident rates by up to one-third in Germany alone. But according to the company, if automated driving is to become reality in production vehicles, legal conditions need to be established.
Countries such as Germany, the US and Japan have already taken measures to introduce amendments to their national law. Yet undoubtedly, despite advancements in the technology, autonomous cars have a long way to go before they can pick you up and take you to your favourite restaurant at the press of a button.
Regardless of challenges, few can deny that the only way is forward for driverless cars. Because statistically speaking, autonomous cars may just be better at driving than humans. And it will not be the first time that machines have been able to better excel at a job than us.For all the latest tech news from the UAE and Gulf countries, follow us on Twitter and Linkedin, like us on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube page, which is updated daily.