Is Dubai ready for the self-driving car?

With Dubai hoping to introduce autonomous vehicles for Expo 2020 and the technology almost ready, how will the emirate cope with driverless cars?

James Reynolds November 8, 2015

By the time Dubai hosts the Expo in 2020, if all goes to plan the city will have a fleet of driverless cars and buses to ferry visitors around town. But will autonomous cars actually work in Dubai or will it always be safer to have a driver behind the wheel?

First things first, in order to properly answer that question we need to establish how good the driverless technology is. So far, the likes of Google, Mercedes-Benz (above), Tesla and Volvo have all dabbled in the field, and slowly but surely, the cars are beginning to find success. Early reviews of Google's autonomous vehicles are good, while Volvo's self-driving XC90 even made it on to public roads in Australia just this week.

So, assuming that by 2020 the technology will be there to create safe self-driving cars, what other factors are there that could affect how successful they will be in Dubai? Certainly a big plus point for the emirate ahead of many other major cities is the fact that while it has developed handsomely over the past few years, compared to the likes of London or New York, for example, the city still has plenty of space, so any extra infrastructure required would not be an issue.

And when it comes to creating that new infrastructure, we know that Dubai isn't exactly shy in coughing up the investment, with the various ongoing projects, including new sub-city Dubai South, tangible evidence of that.

But while Dubai clearly has the money and space to facilitate the introduction of autonomous vehicles, the question still remains, does it really need them? And the answer to that comes down mainly to one thing: safety.

According to RTA statistics, last year there were almost 3,000 reported accidents on Dubai's roads, leading to 204 people being severely injured and 177 people being killed. It is a shocking statistic, and one that shows that despite the government going to great lengths in an effort to improve road safety, there is still a long way to go.

And when it comes to safety, it seems that self-driving cars are set to be a dramatic improvement on what we have now. For example, Google's self-driving car was described by a BBC reviewer as “a Sunday driver, every day of the week,” meaning that while it is, at times, rather slow and over-cautious, in terms of safe driving, it is far more efficient that any human could ever be.

Of course, over-caution can be almost as much of an issue as recklessness, with the various sensors used by the car to gather an understanding of its surroundings sometimes causing an unnecessary abrupt halt when a human would be able to tell that there isn't any imminent danger. Not to mention the extra time it would take to get anywhere while driving so slowly – a side effect unlikely to find favour with Dubai's time-conscious residents.

Then there's the fact that Dubai is renowned for its love for great cars and driving, and the emirate's petrolheads simply would not stand for a city where they couldn't indulge in their passion.

Yet, surely a technology that clearly has the potential to significantly reduce deaths on our roads cannot be ignored. And while it might be slow and ponderous at first, if development continues at the rate it is going, who knows, by 2020 we may well have the tech in place for an efficient driverless transport system.

And as for those with a need for speed, there are plenty of other ways to get your kicks that don't involve endangering the lives of people on their daily commute.