Dubai's driverless vehicle program could indicate future direction of automobile industry

Dubai's driverless vehicle program could indicate future direction of automobile industry | Courtesy of Shutterstock

The driverless car, or autonomous vehicle, is taking off all over the world -- and the Persian Gulf is no exception.

Now, a new driverless transportation program is changing the game on the streets of Dubai, and it is free.

At the end of August, publications started reporting on a new pilot of the EZ10 driverless car on Mohammad Bin Rashid Boulevard, going from the Mohammad Bin Rashid Boulevard/Financial Center Street intersection to Vida Hotel Downtown Dubai. The vehicle, built by Omnix International and Easy Mile, is billed as a “bi-directional shuttle” that is fully programmed to remember routes and operate without a human driver.

EZ10 operates at up to 40km/h, with a movable ramp allowing for ADA access.

Basically, the vehicle is designed to operate with no outside infrastructure, which allows it to serve passengers all day without any human oversight.

The new model could change transportation quickly, as planners and commuters realize that this type of self-directed service is a viable option.

With these types of programs taking off in big cities like Dubai, how long until the rest of us will enjoy a driverless car experience?

It is hard to tell, according to John Angelis, professor of business at Elizabethtown College in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania.

In discussing how soon a driverless car might become commonplace in communities around the U.S. -- and possibly influence programs around the world -- Angelis mentioned Uber tests in Pittsburgh, which he thinks might spur adoption.

“It’s a decent testing ground,” he said, citing elevation changes, tricky intersections and other challenges. 

If the Pittsburgh tests are successful, Angelis believes it could be a boon for quick development.

“I could see it accelerating quickly,” he said.

On the other hand, the driverless car idea could just as well go south if things don’t break in its favor.

One big bump in the road was the Tesla autopilot problem, which, combined with other deaths on the road, could sour governments and the public on the virtues of driverless design.

As for the threat to traditional companies -- for example, today’s major automakers -- Angelis said the writing is on the wall.

“Automakers are in trouble,” he said.

However, there are signs tech companies may want to collaborate instead of driving the gas-powered car companies into extinction. Referencing the progress of the Chevy Volt as one example, Angelis said he thinks companies like Apple and Google may feel led to work with established carmakers, not against them.

Another sign, he said, was the recent talk of a merger between Apple and McLaren Group, a move that could pave the way for more innovation in the industry. U.S. programs are likely to have an international effect, as buyers who now order conventional Fords, Chevrolets and other U.S. brands may look for autonomous vehicle options.

The downtown Dubai project is a concrete, immediate example of how public planners can use the power of the driverless car for substantial benefits to the public. Analysts in the transportation industry and other areas should keep an eye out for rapidly emerging news on these and other driverless car programs taking off right now.

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