UAE flying off on urban transport super highway

UAE flying off on urban transport super highway
The Uber Elevate project has selected Dubai where its on-demand, urban air ride share service will be piloted by 2020.

dubai - The technologies need to evolve from being costly prototypes to an economically viable and sustainable business proposition.

By Abhinav Purohit

Published: Mon 22 May 2017, 7:39 PM

Rush hours are any commuter's nightmare. Being stuck in traffic - on the way to or from work - annoys everyone from London to New York and right down to Dubai. In fact, idling in a car is what unites residents of most metropolis. Apart from being an inconvenience to the commuters, such situations are a tremendous drain on the economy.

As per a 2014 study by the Centre for Economics and Business Research, London, the expenses from traffic congestion amounted to around $200 billion in 2013 together for Britain, France, Germany and the US. This represented about 0.8 per cent of the combined GDP for these four countries. The study estimated that this figure could rise to over $300 billion in 2030.

A similar 2014 study by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (Jica) highlighted that traffic jams in the city of Manila cost the economy of the Philippines upwards of PHP 2.4 billion ($48 million) a day.

These losses accumulate as a cumulative result of a host of factors - productive time lost by the workforce; increased fuel consumption and associated transport costs and its multiplier impact on the prices of goods; and the negative impact on the environment caused by increased pollution.

What these examples highlight are the issues our big cities face today. However, many technology firms are viewing this as an opportunity to innovate and develop creative and sustainable answers. One potential solution that is fast emerging is on-demand aviation, especially which is based on autonomous flying vehicles. Other possibilities revolve around transformational ground/underground based applications.

For example, Kitty Hawk, a US-based start-up that is backed by Alphabet CEO Larry Page, has recently announced the 'Kitty Hawk Flyer' prototype - an all-electric 'ultralight aircraft' intended for personal transportation needs. This is a VTOL (Vertical Take-Off and Landing) craft - thus requiring less space for manoeuvring and flying and the company is hoping to hit the market with it within a year.

Similarly, A^3, an Airbus subsidiary, is working on the 'Vahana' project focused on developing a self-piloted single-seat flying autonomous vehicle. Further, in the Geneva Motor Show (March 2017), Airbus showcased a flying electric car prototype called 'Pop.Up' that could operate both on the ground and in the air - making it a practical solution for the urban traffic congestion problems in mega cities.

Adding to the aerial solutions are the underground plans - and the latest in this domain is the 'Boring Company', backed by Tesla Motors' Elon Musk, that is planning to dig underground tunnels to ease urban congestion. Although, currently, the cost of tunnelling is prohibitively high, Boring Company is hoping to improve upon this by using newer technologies, thus making the idea of underground highways more relatable.

This pace of innovation has not left the UAE untouched. As the country prepares for Expo 2020, the city of Dubai has become a pioneering hotbed for futurist technology adoption. One such project that the Road and Transportation Authority (RTA) is working on is introducing a new taxi service based on single seater self-flying drones.

Then there is the Uber Elevate project that has selected Dubai as one of the few cities where its on-demand, urban air ride share service will be piloted by 2020. The company shared more details about its plans during the 'Uber Elevate Summit' late last month. A key announcement here was Uber's partnership with Dubai Holding to start the development of 'vertiports' - hubs with multiple take-off and landing pads, as well as charging infrastructure - in the city for its flying vehicles.

Another traffic killer idea that is being discussed in the UAE is Hyperloop, which focuses on deploying vacuum-sealed tubes where passengers travel at near supersonic speeds, making their intercity journey just a matter of minutes. Currently, feasibility studies are being conducted to ascertain the viability of introducing 'Abu Dhabi - Dubai' and 'Abu Dhabi - Al Ain' Hyperloops.

However, even with all these new technologies buzzing around, there are still quite a few challenges that need to be addressed before any of these projects can be commercialised. First and foremost, the technologies themselves need to evolve from being costly prototypes to an economically viable and sustainable business proposition. Issues such as battery change per trip, noise reduction and community impact - especially in crowded areas - as well as large landing/parking stations and associated infrastructure development, all need to be resolved before any of these solutions are introduced to the public.

Then there is the regulatory framework around land and air use that needs to be adapted to encompass the new eco-system. This must be done such that at all times, the interests and safety of the passengers are paramount. Another big aspect that needs a thorough investigation is around insurance and compensation and how these would be calculated in an automomus vehicle environment.

The coming few years will be pivotal in shaping this new urban transport paradigm and Dubai will enjoy the driver's seat in navigating this new industry.

The writer is a UAE-based strategy consultant specialising in telecommunications, smart-city and information and communications technology.

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