As the future of driving becomes ever clearer, driving itself looks likely to soon be a thing of the past as robot vehicle development speeds up
Automotive year in review: Technology accelerates
In the fast-moving world of modern technology, terms such as fintech, regtech, biotech and logitech are becoming bywords for accelerating developments within the finance, regulations, medicine and logistics sectors but a term not yet ubiquitous is transtech - transportation technology - and there was little that accelerated harder than personal transtech in 2017.
“We are in era of unprecedented change in the automotive industry: a fundamental rethinking of the very essence of what a car is, what it can do and what it can be used for,” Lennart Mueller-Teut, the head of marketing and communications for Mercedes-Benz Cars Middle East (MBCME), told The National, speaking at the Gitex exhibition in Dubai in October.
“The focus is also no longer solely on the vehicle as a product, but extends to other services that enhance and ease all forms of mobility.”
The year opened with Dubai making global headlines by announcing that flying cars would be operating over the city by the summer - a bold claim that was maybe just two years or so before realisation.
In February, The National reported that Dubai’s Roads and Transport Authority (RTA), in collaboration with the Chinese firm Ehang, had carried out the first test run of an autonomous aerial vehicle (AAV) capable of carrying a human, the Ehang 184.
The flying car was exhibited at the World Government Summit in Dubai that month and the chief of the RTA said a summer start date for flights was envisioned.
“The AAV exhibited at the summit is not just a model; it is a real version that we have already experimented [with] in a flight in Dubai sky. The RTA is making every effort to start the operation of the AAV in July 2017,” Mattar Al Tayer, the director general and chairman of the RTA, said at the time.
In April the RTA signed an agreement with Uber to run a programme of flying cars at Expo 202.
On the ground, however, from General Motors announcing an electrified fleet by 2023 to Google's project Waymo deploying fully-autonomous cars in its wide-ranging testing programme to Tesla releasing the Model 3, some of the biggest stories of the year stemmed from the sudden onslaught of news about electric and autonomous road vehicles. And the uptake of electric is obviously, from an emissions point of view, a Good Thing.
Countries across the world recognised as much this year - Britain and France want to ban the sale of petrol and diesel cars by 2040 - and the state of California wants to follow suit, with China said to be planning the same in the next few years.
Toyota joined the electric game later in 2017 with plans for more than 10 models by the early 2020s, Ford with 13 of its own around the same time, and Volkswagen wants to drop US$82 billion on electric cars.
But aside from the EV revolution, the year will surely be seen as a standout with regards to the development of driverless cars. “The car of the future is the personal companion of the people,” Mercedes’ research specialist Klaus Millerferli told The National, also speaking at the Gitex exhibition.
“Sometimes it’s fun to drive, so you can use the pedals, the steering, in a manual way but sometimes, when there’s a lot of traffic we would like to spend the time for other things, conference etc - it can be like a living room on wheels,” he says.
But truly robot cars are a way off yet
"I think all brands should also be very careful when describing the level of automated driving currently available and permitted on the road," Mr Mueller-Teut says.
"At Mercedes-Benz, we already have the technical capability to implement this technology. For example, just last year, we conducted the first-ever automated drive on the E11 highway from Dubai to Abu Dhabi in the new E-Class, which was the first of its kind in the Middle East. And this year, we enhanced the ‘Intelligent Drive’ capabilities in our new S-Class, which hosts a wide range of automated driving options that will drive us right into the future."
Still, the UK seems to be aiming to lead the way in uptake of autonomous travel. Last week, The National reported that the government will soon allow British drivers to let their cars park themselves following a revision of the country’s highway code proposed by the government.
Self-driving cars will be permitted on the country's roads by 2021, the government says.
“The government is determined that Britain should lead the way in embracing the safe deployment of new vehicle technology," said the transport minister Jesse Norman.
“Features such as remote-control parking and motorway assistance have the potential to transform car travel, adding greater convenience and accessibility to drivers, so that they can park and drive with more confidence.”
Mike Hawes, the chief executive at industry body the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, said: "We welcome the government’s continued commitment to keep the UK at the forefront of connected and autonomous vehicle development and roll-out.”
However, as Mr Mueller-Teut admits, the reality is that the primary barrier to mass use of autonomous driving is not just the technology but convenience and accessibility. "We need to work together with other stakeholders to create an enabling ecosystem and infrastructure that makes autonomous vehicles a seamless part of everyday life," he says.
Still, the company has spent much of the year testing its robot F 015 saloon, a head-turning piece of engineering that looks something like a giant silver bar of soap. Inside, it gives you the feeling you are on the set of the new Star Wars movie, all shiny black, white and silver fittings, a retractable steering column and space-age seating - which swivel to enable face-to-face interaction while on the move.
And Mercedes sees the implementation of such vehicles on the roads, albeit in fleet form, as being sooner rather than later. "We’ll bring the models to market in four five years, the first robo-taxis in the market in certain special cities," Mr Millerferli says.
The company is working with Etisalat in Dubai to build up a detailed three-dimensional map of the city to enable this to happen here.
"We need 3D scans, radar, 360 degrees sensors etc," he says. "We need to bring all this tech together, we need to use AI to tell what is what - should we drive into flowers or into a crowd of people?
"It’s very important because GPS signal is not exact enough … for autonomous driving. Whether you are five metres behind the pedestrian or five metres in front is very important for the pedestrian," Mr Millerferli points out, not unreasonably.
Ahmed Bin Ali, the senior vice president for corporate communication at Etisalat Group, said at Gitex: “Etisalat’s long-term objective is to move into the digital future by taking the lead in innovation to bring futuristic technologies like Internet of Things from around the world to UAE and the region.
"In the automobile sector, Mercedes-Benz has definitely led the way with a strong vision for the future supporting our long-term goals and Dubai government’s strategic direction for Smart Driverless Mobility.”
Mr Millerferli sees the city as an ideal place to further the robot car revolution. "Dubai is very open, the government is open - flying cars, drones, the tech is there. Expo 2020 can help explain the technology, perhaps."
While the German company aims to let ordinary people travel in its automous cars by around 2023-24, Waymo plans to beat that by some way.
“Fully self-driving cars are here,” says the chief executive John Krafcik, speaking at the Web Summit in Lisbon in July. “The question you may be wondering: how soon can we all get a ride? Well, in the next few months, members of the public will get to experience these fully self-driving rides, too.”
The cars initially will only drive in a 100-square-mile area of the town of Chandler, a suburb of Phoenix, but Waymo will slowly expand where it can drive.
Alongside cars, transtech saw the wider emergence of a new approach to road haulage - called “platooning”. The term describes technology that electronically connects multiple trucks along a digital virtual longitudinal axis.
"The lead vehicle is ‘in charge’, and all the following trucks accelerate, brake and turn in sync with it," Kivanç Arman, the automotive aftermarket regional director for Middle East and Turkey at Robert Bosch Middle East told The National in the summer.
"Not only does this save fuel – driving in the slipstream of the lead truck can cut fuel consumption up to 10 per cent – but also makes the drivers’ work easier and safer. At Bosch, we are focusing on automated driving on freeways at the moment, and looking at real world cases where it could offer the greatest benefits."
Platooning will play an important part in the future of overland transport, he said, as the logistics industry continues to make use of technology to improve efficiency and cut costs. At the IAA Commercial Vehicles show in September 2016, the company unveiled the Bosch “VisionX” truck study, which demonstrated what commercial vehicles will be capable of in just a few years’ time.
"We showcased a concept for fully connected and semi-automated vehicles that would enable truck drivers to take on other tasks, such as route planning, document processing, or simply taking a break," Mr Arman said.
So it could be that in a few years you may be reading the newspaper as your autonomous car powers you along the Shiekh Zayed motorway to work when you look up and see a convoy of trucks, lead driver with hands on the wheel while in the two cabs behind, the drivers, feet up on the dashboard, are watching TV and playing video games.
It may all sound more science fiction than science fact but Mercedes for one is certain robot vehicles will happen.
"Autonomous driving will become a reality. However, at this time, no region or country can claim full readiness for the autonomous era," says Mr Mueller-Teut.
"This requires a global, industry-wide effort to build partnerships that leverage and draw on the expertise of various stakeholders, in both the public and private sectors, to prepare customers, drivers, regulators and corporations for this future."
But for all the whizz-bang tech involved, would the developers of these transport solutions of the future actually use one?
"For sure," insists Mr Millerferli, "my wife lives 200km from me, I would like to spend the two hours driving time it takes doing something else."