Autonomous vehicles aren’t a magic bullet for GCC urban logistics expert warns

According to Marcelo Blumenfeld, an Industrial Fellow at the Birmingham Centre for Railway Research and Education, true smart mobility in urban centres like Dubai can only be achieved through an integrated approach.
Marcelo Blumenfeld, an Industrial Fellow at the Birmingham Centre for Railway Research and Education.
Marcelo Blumenfeld, an Industrial Fellow at the Birmingham Centre for Railway Research and Education.

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By 2030, there will be more than 5-million trips made by air, road and rail in the city using autonomous transport, according to plans laid out by the RTA’s ‘Dubai Autonomous Transportation Strategy’.

The plans are part of the government’s smart city initiatives, and aim to save AED22-billion in annual economic costs, with 25% of the total transportation in Dubai automated.

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The autonomous vehicles component is naturally the most glamorous and interesting for most industry observers and is an area where a lot of work is being done.

The Roads and Transport Authority department says it has endorsed standards of testing for electric, hybrid and self-driving vehicles that will ensure the emirate is “pioneering” in the field.

The government body has revealed that autonomous vehicles will be a fixture on the city's roads in the "near future" - though it is still not known when the driverless fleet will be rolled out for public use.

According to Marcelo Blumenfeld, an Industrial Fellow at the Birmingham Centre for Railway Research and Education, true smart mobility in urban centres like Dubai can only be achieved through an integrated approach.

“While autonomous vehicles are the buzzwords in smart cities talk, there are several challenges that cannot be overlooked. Automated traffic can certainly increase the capacity and reliability of the road network, but there is no magic bullet for a world undergoing extreme urbanisation,” he says.

“The idea that autonomous electric vehicles can solve our mobility challenges is tricky because the road network cannot absorb the demand.”

Megacities are a growing force, and by 2030 there will be over 100 cities with more than 5 million inhabitants, and by then 600 cities alone will account for 60% of the global GDP. Dubai is expected to be one of them according to population forecasts.

“In that sense, smart cities need to also maintain the efforts in high-capacity transport systems that can provide the backbone of urban mobility in populated areas,” says Blumenfeld. “Looking at the difference in accessibility and mobility levels between Tokyo and Lagos highlights the pertinence of investing in automated railways such as Dubai Metro.”

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In other areas, cities need to look at solutions to improve first and last mile connectivity. Automation can only do so much, mostly for the same capacity challenges, but alternative mobility options have been gaining momentum.

Dockless bike sharing and electric scooters have proven a certain disruptive potential if adequate policy and planning accompany technological implementation.

Furthermore, economic and financial policies have to be adjusted to new mobility paradigms.

“Pricing mechanisms need to be adjusted under MaaS in order to capture the value of integration,” says Blumenfeld. “Many cities account with complex pricing structures that can remove the incentive to on-the-go mode choice.”

“When urban mobility is seen as an integrated ecosystem rather than a collection of competing modes, infrastructure systems need to be adjusted accordingly,” he adds.

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