The future of transport has flying taxis and smart metro lines

Autonomous transport is key to achieving smart city ambitions, research shows

German start-up Volocopter claims its electric flying car will reinvent short-distance urban travel.
German start-up Volocopter claims its electric flying car will reinvent short-distance urban travel.

Mobility is one of the main factors that can make or break a city. The speed and relative ease at which one can travel from A to B is a key concern for people flow and urban management. This is made more pertinent against the backdrop of unprecedented urbanisation with the United Nations expecting more than two-thirds of the global population, which will hit 9.7 billion in 2050, to be living in cities. Technology will help to meet these unprecedented demands because experts agree that you cannot have a smart city without smarter infrastructure. This is where autonomous vehicles are coming into the fast lane.

Dubai and Riyadh are both pursuing smart city schemes and when it comes to transport infrastructure, the former can already boast automated metro lines. The kingdom is building its own metro system that will be automated, too. Saudi Arabia’s $22.5bn (SAR84.3bn) Riyadh Metro will feature rail carriages entirely operated by driverless technology. France’s Alstom has agreed to supply a total of 69 Metropolis automated aluminium units, each one will be 36-metres long and suitable for accommodating up to 231 passengers for lines 4, 5 and 6 of the metro project.

Automated metro lines are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg when it comes to talk around driving smart city schemes forward. What takes many newspaper headlines is the rise – in an increasingly literal sense – of driverless cars and flying taxis.

Earlier this year, RTA backed up its automated transport push by signing a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with The Sustainable City to operate autonomous vehicles across the community’s facilities. The MoU will provide a study for the location and infrastructure needed to operate the autonomous vehicles.

This driverless technology strategy dates back even further, though. More than 12 months ago, in September 2017, RTA conducted the inaugural flight of its Autonomous Flying Taxi (AAT). The AAT is a two-seater vehicle, capable of transporting passengers without direct or remote human intervention and will be used by RTA to set up the world’s first self-flying taxi service, although no timeline for has been set yet.

READ: How smart city concepts can be translated into reality

The first flight of the AAT was witnessed by HH Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai. On that occasion, he said: “This is another testament of our commitment to driving positive change. We are constantly exploring opportunities to serve the community and advance the prosperity and happiness of the society.”

In October 2018, Dubai’s Roads and Transport Authority (RTA) revealed that the region’s first driverless taxi will be tested in Dubai Silicon Oasis. The autonomous car is equipped with cameras and sensors that analyse traffic and road conditions, with an artificial intelligence-automated chat system for users to ask questions during their hands-free travel. 

READ: The GCC's top smart city projects of 2018

Dubai has a strategy to convert 25% of public transport services to driverless means by 2030, and the AAT and driverless taxis, such as German firm Volocopter’s, are central parts of this government plan.

This could benefit retail developers, according to Chris Seymour, managing director for the Middle East of Mott MacDonald. He told Construction Week that the consultancy is “doing a lot of work” to help its clients maximise driverless technology opportunities.

Most new cars have self-parking technology and this could be an area that shopping mall developers could look at to drive revenue growth. “When you travel to the mall, rather than having to park your car it will park itself and this fundamentally changes the way you are going to lay out a mall,” Seymour said.

“What you’re going to need to do is have a large set down area and probably a smaller parking area because cars can park much more accurately [than people] and use less space, plus there is a lot less room for error.  What we are finding this is doing is potentially realising more space for retail, so out of the same footprint [of total leasable area] you could probably get more retail space and of course this is really important if you are a developer.”

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