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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 16 November 2018

Journey into the age of the driverless car still needs careful steering

In its quest to be embrace new technology, the UAE is asking all the right questions

The Baidu Apollo autonomous car is displayed during the annual Baidu World Technology Conference in Beijing on November 1, 2018. Fred Dufour / AFP
The Baidu Apollo autonomous car is displayed during the annual Baidu World Technology Conference in Beijing on November 1, 2018. Fred Dufour / AFP

Often in the UAE, it feels as though the future is closer than we could ever have imagined. Once the creation of science fiction writers, the country’s roads and highways could soon be teeming with self-driving cars. Prepare to bid farewell to the shuttle between Dubai and Abi Dhabi; you could soon be sitting back and relaxing while your autopilot steers you safely to work.

Interest in autonomous vehicles is not unique to the UAE, but this country – which is embracing change like few others – could be one of the first to see mass penetration. Heralding the dawn of the fourth industrial revolution, Dubai’s rulers expect a quarter of all road trips to be autonomous by 2030. And, practically speaking, the consistency of the UAE’s weather makes it genuinely possible. Autonomous vehicles in Europe and the US, by contrast, will need to contend with unexpected snow and rain.

But, like any paradigm shift, the thrilling advent of autonomous vehicles poses a whole host of questions. Last week, Atraf Shehab, an official at the Ministry of Cabinet Affairs, warned that new legislation must meet ground-breaking technological advances, to ensure they are safe and their impact is positive. Issues of culpability and insurance should an autonomous vehicle hit a person, and the havoc that hackers could wreak, require rigorous analysis prior to even modest uptake. What too, will become of the hundreds of thousands of people employed as drivers in the UAE – and the economies that depend on their remittances. Some questions are philosophical. Echoing a famous ethical thought experiment known as the “trolley problem”, what should a self-driving car do, for instance, if it faces a choice between killing three pedestrians or its single owner?

When a Tesla vehicle on autopilot crashed in California in May 2016, killing its driver, the company issued an online mea culpa. The car did not spot “the white side of the tractor trailer against a brightly lit sky, so the break was not applied”, it read. This served as a reminder that beneath the glitz and glamour of innovation lie important issues of safety. It is good to know that these matters are being fully considered in the UAE’s pioneering drive into the future.