Nature and Biodiversity

Can Dubai go green with flying taxis and 'rooms on wheels'?

A man walks past the world's first autonomous pods which was launched by the Roads and Transport Authority of Dubai in Dubai, United Arab Emirates February, 28, 2018. Picture taken February, 28, 2018. REUTERS/Satish Kumar - RC1BA7C68C00

Dubai is eyeing a greener future. Image: REUTERS/Satish Kumar

Umberto Bacchi
Journalist, Thomson Reuters Foundation
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Emerging Technologies

With a bus stop only five minutes from her Dubai home, it is normally convenient for Deborah Irechukwu to travel to the city centre by public transport - except in summer.

The scorching temperatures - which can reach more than 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) - make even that short walk excruciating, so when she has to run an errand the Nigerian native usually takes a taxi.

"It's too hot outside. But today I didn't have much (cash) on me, so I had to take the bus," said Irechukwu, a teacher, wiping her face of sweat as she sat inside an air-conditioned bus shelter one afternoon.

Have you read?

"In Dubai it's better if you're driving."

With more than one vehicle for every two people - according to the Roads and Transport Authority (RTA) - Dubai has far more cars per person than other major cities like New York, Berlin and London.

This contributes to the United Arab Emirates ranking among the 10 countries with the highest per capita carbon footprints, says World Bank data.

That is something authorities are trying to change, with ambitious plans that in a few years could theoretically see Irechukwu flying to the mall or being picked up by an electrically powered, self-driving "room on wheels". From Singapore to Berlin, cities have been looking at new transport technologies to cut traffic and climate-warming emissions.

Having invested almost 100 billion dirhams ($27 billion) on infrastructure including metro, tram and bus lines since 2005, Dubai is now experimenting with drone taxis and driverless transport pods that it hopes will entice people to leave their cars at home.

The technological push might only partially curb Dubai's car dependency, but it has turned the city into a laboratory of future transportation, according to transport experts.

"You could easily brand what's happening in Dubai with those flashy trials as slightly gimmicky," said Philipp Rode, who runs LSE Cities, a research centre at the London School of Economics.

"This is not really trying to rethink the city at a systemic scale. But then, if you look in a bit more detail, there are interesting innovations," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Bus, taxi or pod?

Among those innovations are autonomous pods that aim to combine the comfort of ride-hailing services like Uber with the efficiency and capacity of buses, said Rode.

The cube-shaped vehicles built in Italy by California-based firm NEXT Future Transportation can carry up to 10 people each and dock together when in motion, allowing passengers to move from one unit to the other as they travel.

The vehicles would pick up single users at home, then pool people going in the same direction inside one module, as other pods are released to collect more passengers.

"It's like a relay race," said inventor Tommaso Gecchelin, who co-founded the company.

With a top speed of 90 km per hour (56 miles per hour) and measuring 6.5 square metres (70 square feet) each, the pods look like "rooms on wheels", he said in a phone interview.

They can also include bars, toilets and check-in facilities for people headed to the airport.

A fleet of 1,000 could help Dubai cut traffic congestion by up to 50%, by allowing people like Irechukwu to move around in affordable comfort all year round, Gecchelin estimated.

The company plans to start mass production by the end of next year and have at least four pods ready to ferry visitors within the Dubai 2020 Expo site, after it tested two prototypes in the city in 2018.

An air taxi by German company Volocopter is pictured at the Rotorcraft Asia trade show in Singapore, April 11, 2019.
An air taxi by German company Volocopter is pictured at the Rotorcraft Asia trade show in Singapore, April 11, 2019. Image: REUTERS/Feline Lim

No pilot

The pod trials come under the city's plans to make a quarter of daily transportation self-driven by 2030, which Dubai's Roads and Transport Authority says could help significantly cut transportation costs, road accidents and pollution.

RTA director general Mattar al-Tayer said the city has also been looking into self-driving cars, "sky pods" that run on suspended rails and flying taxis.

In 2017, the city launched its bid to become the world's first city with a drone taxi service when an unmanned two-seater drone resembling a small helicopter cabin topped by a wide hoop studded with 18 propellers took its maiden flight within the emirate.

Alexander Zosel, co-founder of Volocopter, the German company that built the sky cab, said 1,000 drones taking off and landing vertically from at least 30 ports across the city could move 10,000 people around per hour.

A ride in a flying cab would cost around the same as one that drives on the road, he added.

"We want to bring everybody to fly with (us)," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation over the phone. But full-scale development is still at least a decade away, he said.

Al-Tayer said the city was looking to have its first flying cabs airborne "in the near future", adding Volocopter was among a number of operators the city was in talks with.

Air taxis would cut traffic, emissions and the need for new parking space, he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in emailed comments.

They would help Dubai in its quest to become "the smartest city in the world" and increase the share of public transport journeys to almost a quarter of the total by 2025, up from 17% today, he added.

An aerial view taken from a sea plane shows Swiss pilot and original Jetman Yves Rossy (front) and Vince Reffett flying over Dubai's Palm Island, Dubai, United Arab Emirates May 12, 2015.
An aerial view taken from a sea plane shows Swiss pilot and original Jetman Yves Rossy (front) and Vince Reffett flying over Dubai's Palm Island, Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Image: REUTERS/Lara Sukhtian

Flying or walking?

While autonomous cars and flying taxis might be the future of transport in Dubai, they will not work everywhere, said Rode of LSE Cities.

Some cities trying to reduce car usage might not want a proliferation of privately-owned self-driving vehicles, which risk increasing traffic while they drive around empty, looking for parking or trying to pick up their owners, he said.

"Autonomous vehicles have to be based on shared mobility ... otherwise you risk replacing one inefficient mode of transport with another."

And flying taxis could also cause undesirable side-effects, such as casting shadows all over the city and increasing wind flow and noise, Rode added.

Instead of looking at new ways to get people where they need to go, some places like Copenhagen and Singapore are trying to reduce the need for people to go anywhere at all, by bringing services like supermarkets and schools closer to their homes, he said.

But European and Asian cities have an advantage over Dubai in implementing such changes, as Dubai's expansion over the past 40 years has centered around driving, city planning experts say.

The city of 3.3 million, according to official figures, has about the same population as Madrid, but covers an area more than five times larger.

Awash with multi-lane highways, Dubai has few comfortable pathways for people to walk along to reach malls and public transport stations.

"The challenge is always: once you build a city it is very hard to change it," said Karim Elgendy, a sustainability associate at Dar Al-Handasah, a London-based engineering consultancy.

"It's very hard to create new pathways, new mobility networks, because where are you going to put them?"

As Dubai hangs its hopes on futuristic tech to compensate for its driving-heavy design, some residents say all the city needs to do is make it easier for them to walk to their local metro station.

"These pilot projects are done to impress, but there is a risk they will not be implemented at a scale where they would actually become useful," said Marco Celentano, an Italian expat who has lived in the emirate for almost a decade.

"For now, the easiest way to get around is by car," he said.

($1 = 3.6728 UAE dirham)

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