Life in the fast lane
A transport revolution is coming to the UAE
It’s 2027, 10 years from today. You have an urgent appointment in Abu Dhabi at 9am and you’ve only just left the apartment on Palm Jebel Ali at 8.30. So plenty of time then.
The drone taxi you ordered via the RTA app is hovering outside. It’s only a couple of minutes to the hyperloop station at Al Maktoum International Airport, where the 8.40 service gets you to Reem Island Central in 12 minutes.
From here another driverless taxi — a Tesla this time — ordered on the Careem app, picks you up for your meeting.
You’re actually five minutes early for the appointment — which turns out to have been cancelled 10 minutes after you left home... Ah well. You can’t have everything.
A flight of fancy? Visions of the future often have a way of failing to materialise as expected. Back in the 1950s, magazines like Popular Mechanics imagined the skies of today filled with spaceships on their way to Mars, and trips to the shops in the family autogyro.
This time feels different, though. It’s not just that advances in technology now make a transport revolution possible, but also that there is the will to make it happen. Especially in the UAE.
The UAE has a way of catching up fast, and then overtaking the world from the fast lane. Take the electric car. For years it was nothing more than a novelty in a country whose prosperity had been founded on petrochemicals, while in China sales reached more than 700,000 a year.
Suddenly Tesla has come to town, launching in Dubai this month with a showroom for its complete range, soon to include the new mass-market Model 3. There are charging stations springing up across the Emirates, and electric is the cool kid on the roads.
Then there is hyperloop, the supersonic transport system that shoots pods in a tube faster than a passenger jet. Inevitably, some are sceptical about the practicability of this untested concept. Yet the UAE has two hyperlink projects under development; one from Abu Dhabi to Dubai and the other from the capital to Al Ain.
In Dubai, we are promised flying taxis using two-person drones that will begin testing later in the year, and driverless vehicles that in less than 15 years will account for one in four journeys in the emirate.
Some of these will be taxis, again developed by Tesla, the company created by the billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk, whose cars will become a familiar sight on our streets this year, fuelled by the UAE’s growing network of charging stations. At Abu Dhabi’s Umm Al Emarat Park, electric cars now even have their own reserved parking spaces.
It was Abu Dhabi’s Masdar City in 2010 where we were first introduced to autonomous vehicles. Now nearby Yas Island is proposing to move visitors to the growing collection of theme parks using pods running on magnetic levitation. The plan is to eventually connect the pods to the new terminal at the international airport.
There are still some areas where progress is slower. Etihad Rail once promised a network of both passenger and freight services that would connect not just the UAE’s major cities, but with routes across the entire GCC and even beyond.
These ambitions have since been scaled back, with the only currently operating route transporting sulphur from Habshan to Ruwais.
In this vision of the future, there are also a few blind spots. Anyone who has experienced the morning rush hour in Abu Dhabi will be aware that the city would greatly benefit from a more developed public transport system.
Long promised, the first stages of what would be a 131-kilometre metro network were originally due to begin operation next year — but work has yet to start. Hopefully, the first trains will be running in our hypothetical transport future of 2027.
The journey begins here.
The road ahead: Electric cars are leading the charge
Even with the end of subsidies, petrol prices in the UAE are some of the lowest in the world. According to Bloomberg, a gallon of petrol here represents just two per cent of the average wage.
So why buy an electric car?
It’s a question that will shortly be answered. Tesla, the electric vehicle company founded by billionaire Elon Musk, has targeted the UAE as part of its global expansion.
Telsa opened its first showroom and service station in Dubai on July 12 and is already taking orders for its new Model 3, billed as the company’s first mass-market electric car, with a predicted sticker price of around Dh128,000 and single charge range of nearly 350 kilometres. Delivery to the UAE is expected to begin in the new year.
Will this be the year of the electric car? Until recently electric vehicles (EVs) were seen as a luxury item, a toy for the rich or a statement by the eco-centric.
In the UAE, the electric car was even more impractical, with an absence of charging stations and no mechanics to make repairs. Even insurance was a challenge.
Now a network of charging stations is growing across the Emirates. Tesla’s glamourous reputation ensures massive interest in a brand-conscious (and wealthy) society like the UAE. Owning a new Tesla might become the motoring equivalent of getting the latest iPhone.
Worldwide, there were two million EVs purchased last year, double that of 2015. Yet even as far back as a decade earlier, the number of these types of cars were only in the hundreds.
The reason for this surge is the same as it was for Henry Ford’s pioneering Model T over 100 years ago: cheaper and better technology.
Many of the major car manufacturers are investing in electric vehicles. Volvo this month even pledged to switch its entire range to electric or hybrid engines by 2019.
This looks like a re-run of the early days of motoring, except in reverse.
It was Ford’s Model T which made petrol-driven cars affordable for the masses. Until then, many of the early automobiles were actually powered by electricity.
Many attribute the rise in popularity to Tesla, but the company is not the only game in town. The world’s largest EV manufacturer is BYD of China, selling more than 100,000 EVs last year, with Tesla delivering around 75,000, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance. Other models include the Nissan Leaf, BMW i3 and Chevrolet Bolt.
Below: Where can you go in your electric car on a single charge?
While Tesla is betting on the UAE as the gateway to the wider region, EVs will likely not dominate the roads of the oil-rich Gulf in the near future.
Currently the UAE offers two makes: Tesla and Renault (though there are hybrid cars available, such as the BMW i8). The California carmaker has started selling the Model S and X, with the new Model 3 likely to hit the road in the UAE early next year.
And while the name will likely draw some sales, there are other points to consider. Driving in one of these cars from Abu Dhabi to Dubai is a possibility, but crossing into Oman or Saudi Arabia is not.
That doesn’t mean that it won’t be in the future. There are several companies, such as French electric utility Engie, interested in adding the stations necessary to make this a reality. It’s just not there yet.
The other factor to consider is financing.
One of the major catalysts to the boom of EVs overseas has been government policies. Norway has extended its tax-exemption programme for the eco-friendly rides as well as offering privileged parking and free tolls on highways. Emirates NBD is trying to work out a deal similar to provide discounts on the UAE’s road toll system, Salik. This incentive would be included in the auto loan granted by the bank.
Emirates NBD, along with HSBC, are the only banks offering special EV loans, but these rates do not shave off much compared to the relative high cost of the vehicles.
And then there’s the insurance. The average claim cost is unclear, as prices for parts and maintenance are based on years of research for petrol-fuelled vehicles, but EVs are still a relatively nascent market with little historical data. And it will take a little longer before we have a better picture of the cost of an accident, weather degradation on certain parts, and overall maintenance.
The UAE is leading the region in its drive for electric cars, but don’t expect the Pajero to disappear any time soon.
Taking it through the limit.
What future for the hyperloop?
The basis of the hyperloop transportation system is a capsule that travels at near-supersonic speeds in a sealed tube.
Arthur Kantrowitz believed this was impossible.
A renowned American physicist and engineer whose achievements included research that allows missile cones to survive re-entry, his Kantrowitz Limit equation demonstrated that an object moving through a tube would eventually meet such resistance from the build-up of air pressure that it would rapidly be reduced to a crawl.
Yet hyperloop projects are being proposed all over the world, including two in the UAE. Los Angeles-based Hyperloop One proposes a link between Abu Dhabi and Dubai that would transport passengers at 1,200 kph between the two cities in 12 minutes.
Meanwhile, another American company, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT), sponsored by Sheikh Falah bin Zayed, is developing a proposal between Al Ain and the capital, with a journey time of nine minutes.
Both companies exists because of pioneering research by Elon Musk, the South African billionaire behind Tesla Motors and Space X. It was Musk who proposed a simple workaround to the Kantrowitz Limit; a compressor fan mounted at the front of the vehicle that would suck in the air before it builds up and expel it to the rear.
Inside the tube, which would be pressurised to a near vacuum, 28-seat passenger cars, floating on a cushion of air, would be propelled forward by external linear induction motors placed approximately every 112 kilometres along the network.
The result, Musk predicted, would be: “A cross between a Concorde, a rail gun and an air-hockey table."
Musk had bowed out of the hyperloop game by 2014, but not before publishing the results of his research in a 58-page open source document, allowing others to continue his work.
Below: a promotional video released by Hyperloop One in 2016
Both Hyperloop One and HHT are optimistic about their prospects. Hyperloop One, which retains a close connection with Musk through its senior executives, speaks of having the first passengers travel between Abu Dhabi and Dubai by 2021.
HHT has secured an agreement Abu Dhabi’s Department of Municipal Affairs and Transportation and says it will need three years once final approval is given.
For either project to succeed, major obstacles must be overcome. Some of these are scientific. At present the closest thing to a working hyperloop is a 500-meter track built by Hyperloop One in the Nevada Desert outside Las Vegas. This July, the company announced it had carried out a successful test in a vacuum, although only so far at a speed of 112kph, and unveiled an 8.5 metre and unveiled a 112kph aluminium and carbon fibre prototype of a passenger and cargo pod.
The verdict of John Hansman, professor of aeronautics and astronautics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is that in the underlying principles of hyperloop travel: "I don't see anything that violates fundamental laws of physics.”
Dr Hansman, though, has other concerns when it comes actually building one. He predicts that about the amount of energy a system would consume would make it economically unviable.
The cost issue has been raised by others. While Musk priced a 600 km track between Los Angeles and San Francisco at
US$6 billion, some estimates put it at closer to $100 bn. On that basis, ticket prices would be prohibitive.
Others have predicted that even slight vibrations in the tube would buffet passengers,while the rapid acceleration and deceleration could induce nausea (Although it should be noted that similar predictions were made nearly 200 years ago about the first steam trains).
All these are unknowns that will have to answered with years of research, testing and safety certification before the first kilometre of track is laid. A similar process will have to be gone through for both projects’ commercial viability.
Is this achievable, especially in the timescale envisaged? Here is the reality behind the hype of the Hyperloop.
All hail the flying taxi - and the driverless bus
The future will arrive shortly after September this year – at least according to Dubai’s Road and Transport Authority.
The RTA has announced that it will begin trials in the fourth quarter of 2017 of the Velocopter 2X, a pilotless, two-seater flying taxi that could transform the process of getting from Al Quoz to the Burj Khalifa.
When the news was first released earlier this year, it predictably made headlines around the world. Flying taxis seemed the latest attention-grabber from a city synonymous with publicity stunts and bling, where police patrol cars included a Bugatti Veyron and a McLaren MP4.
On their own, autonomous flying taxis might seem like another marketing gimmick for Brand Dubai. But they are actually part of something much bigger; a deliberate strategy to transform the way the city moves and grows.
Less exciting than a Velocopter, the Government strategy for Dubai’s transport by 2030 is nevertheless essential to understanding how they fit into a much bigger vision of the future.
Mattar Al Tayer, director general and chairman of the Board of Directors of Roads and Transport Authority (RTA), has described autonomous mobility – or driverless vehicles to most of us – as a: " Fait accompli.”
The technology he points out, has already been tested in many countries. For Dubai, the director general says, this is an opportunity for the Government to take the lead, rather than leaving it to the private sector.
The goal, set in February, is for one in four journeys to be made in autonomous vehicle by 2030. To succeed, Al Tayer said: “The journey on an autonomous vehicle will soon be like boarding a lift. All of us trust the closed box that lifts us to different levels, as we know it is secure, ready and tested.”
Below: "Secure, ready and tested." Is the the taxi of the skies?
Residents of Dubai are already familiar with autonomous transport, even if they may not always realise it. Both the Metro and the Dubai Tram use driverless vehicles and currently carry an average of more than 600,000 passengers every day.
The flying taxis are a more niche experiment. The city is actually in discussion with two companies, including the Chinese-designed and built Ehang 184, currently a single-seater version and which began testing in Dubai this month, although not yet with passengers.
It is the two seater-Velocopter that seems more likely to take to the skies first as a commercial service. The German-built flying machine features 18 independently powered rotors, with a top speed of nearly 100km. With a flying limit of around half an hour, the electric motors can be recharged in around 40 minutes.
Safety concerns are obvious. The Velocopter's makers say multiple engines mean that even if the craft experiences mechanical problems, it will still be able to land safely. As an added precaution, the design incorporates a parachute, able to support both the machine and its occupants.
Whether a flying taxi is economically viable is perhaps a bigger challenge. Private air travel is notoriously only for billionaires and film stars. Even if that price tag is significantly lowered, flying taxis will still be significantly more expensive than the terrestrial version, even, if as announced, Uber is interested in getting into the game.
Still, Dubai is a good place for the concept to succeed. No city knows better that time equals money. And driverless vehicles have the potential to save both, with the added benefit of reducing both pollution and congestion.
Down to earth, other experiments are under way. Last November a Mercedes E Class became the first self-driving car to make the journey from Abu Dhabi to Dubai, overcoming what Mark De Haes, the CEO of Mercedes Middle East, described as: “a lot of speeding and aggressive driving”.
Trials of a smart autonomous vehicle – essential a driverless electric 10-seater minibus – have already been completed in the Business Bay and Downtown Dubai districts.
The RTA publicity that accompanied the launch of the EZ10 – as it is properly called – point to a future that includes both driverless cars, taxis and buses. And not just in Dubai.
If the EZ10 seems familiar to residents of Abu Dhabi, it is because a similar concept has been operating at Masdar City since 2010 and has now transported over two million visitors, including the Indian Prime Minister Narenda Modi and Prince Charles, the heir to the British throne.
The city will take the idea of driverless transport even further, with a proposal to carry visitors around Yas Island, home to the Yas Marina F1 and track and the soon-to-be completed Warner Bros theme park, using a network of elevated passenger pods.
Developers Miral have signed a deal with skyTran, an American company based at the NASA Ames Research Center in California. SkyTran’s Personal Rapid Transportation concept (PRT) uses two-seater futuristic pods that can run at high speed, using magnetic levitation rather than wheels.
Like other autonomous systems, it promises to be fast, safe and good for the environment. The eventual idea is to extend the PRT network to Abu Dhabi’s new airport terminal, due to open next year.
It may not be much longer that for visitors to the UAE, the pilot of the aircraft that brings them here will be the last human they see at the controls.
Words: James Langton and LeAnne Graves
Graphics: Ramon Penas
Photographs: Victor Besa, Pawan Singh
Images and videos courtesy of RTA Dubai, Hyperloop One, Hyperloop TT, Miral, Ehang, Tesla, James Wight /Global EVRT, Etihad Rail
Copyright The National 2017