The race for a driverless future

Jessica Holland
Jessica Holland

The competition between countries and companies to launch autonomous vehicles widely and successfully is high. Dubai's transport authority is building its own system and, it hopes, will have driverless cars on the road by 2020

Engineers around the world are competing to be the first to turn driverless cars from nifty novelties into widely available vehicles, ready to hit the highways.

Google is expected to start putting its own self-driving cars on the road in Mountain View, California this summer, although the company says it won’t start selling the vehicles to consumers until around 2020.

There are still plenty of challenges posed by the idea of a self-driving car on regular roads, surrounded by ordinary traffic, stop signs, pedestrians and potholes

The Chinese web company Baidu has said that it will launch its first “semi-autonomous” car later this year, and in the UK, the totally self-driving “LUTZ Pathfinder” pod, created by Transport Systems Catapult, is being tested now on the pavements of Milton Keynes.

In theory the elimination of human error from the driving process — no more last-minute lane switches, texting while driving or getting distracted by other passengers — should make the streets much safer. However, there are still plenty of challenges posed by the idea of a self-driving car on regular roads, surrounded by ordinary traffic, stop signs, pedestrians and potholes. Then there's the issue of whether car insurance would be required, and if it is, how it will be assessed or calculated.  

Dubai’s Road and Transport Authority (RTA) is putting in place a bold new solution to at least some of challenges. Work has began on a bridge link to the Bluewaters Island project, a new Dh1.6 billion development off the Jumeirah Beach coastline that will include host shops, attractions, accommodation and the world’s largest Ferris wheel.

Not only could cars like this boost productivity and health, but they can also grant independence to the elderly and others with mobility problems

The bridge will support not only two lanes of regular traffic in each direction, but also lanes dedicated to what His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, calls a “personal rapid transit system”. Elsewhere, they are described as a system of “podcars”.

While the dedicated lane will eliminate the unpredictability of regular traffic, other companies are competing to build the first safe car that can respond to every eventuality on the road — and to find a way to deal with the unique legal problems posed by a car without a driver. Some prototypes factor in a passenger who can override the self-driving system if needed, but others do away completely with steering wheels and brakes.

The Dubai RTA is hoping to get driverless cars travelling on the road in time for the 2020 World Expo. At last year’s UAE Government Summit, an exhibition showcased futuristic self-driving vehicles that doubled as gyms, offices and meeting rooms.

Not only could cars like this boost productivity and health, but they can also grant independence to the elderly and others with mobility problems. It’s an exciting prospect, and it looks like we won’t have long to wait before this classic science-fiction fantasy – cars that drive us, rather than the other way around – becomes a reality.