Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 21 September 2019

Self-driving car of the future to be speeding down Sheikh Zayed Road by 2023

Autonomous vehicles set to become a reality as Dubai firm shows off futuristic prototype

The W Motors self-driving vehicle prototype, on display at the International Defence Exhibition and Conference in Abu Dhabi. Victor Besa / The National. 
The W Motors self-driving vehicle prototype, on display at the International Defence Exhibition and Conference in Abu Dhabi. Victor Besa / The National. 

It looks like something from the Hollywood blockbusters Blade Runner or Minority Report.

But this radically designed car of the future will be driving itself down Sheikh Zayed Road by 2023, its creators claimed.

The prototype of the fully self-driving vehicle, named Muse, was developed by W Motors in Dubai and Chinese sister company Iconiq Motors, along with a series of partners including Microsoft.

It is planned that a working ‘level 4’ model – meaning fully autonomous capabilities which can be taken over by a human using a retractable steering wheel – will be a star attraction at Dubai Expo 2020 next year.

An operational ‘level 5’ version – meaning fully self-driving with no steering wheel – will be ready for testing within months.

“We will see these on the roads faster than you think,” said Ralph Debbas, chief executive of W Motors.

“By 2020 the car is going to be driving in controlled environments. We reckon this [level 5] car is going to be on the road by 2023.

“So in less than four years you’re going to have cars like this driving along Sheikh Zayed Road. It’s not that far away.”

The concept of a self-driving car has fixated start-ups, entrepreneurs and established manufacturers alike for some time.

Volvo has been testing a self-driving SUV while Tesla Motors, under the watchful eye of co-founder Elon Musk, has been testing its Model X vehicle. Meanwhile Waymo, Google’s sister company, also aims to bring an autonomous vehicle to market.

Ralph Debbas, chairman and CEO of W Motors, in the self-driving car prototype. Victor Besa / The National.
Ralph Debbas, chairman and CEO of W Motors, in the self-driving car prototype. Victor Besa / The National.

Yet despite the billions of dollars being spent in research and development, some remain sceptical that self-driving cars can become a reality, at least in the short-term.

A series of complex technical and legal challenges still face developers, including programming vehicles to safely navigate the unpredictable behaviour of human drivers and pedestrians.

There are also a series of regulatory and ethical barriers to overcome – such as deciding who would be held responsible if a self-driving car is involved in an accident.

Mr Debbas admitted the problems designers were up against were “not easy” but insisted he was confident they could be overcome.

The W Motors self-driving prototype, on display at the International Defence Exhibition and Conference in Abu Dhabi. Victor Besa / The National.
The W Motors self-driving prototype, on display at the International Defence Exhibition and Conference in Abu Dhabi. Victor Besa / The National.

Changes would have to be made to roads, he said, so that self-driving cars do not share spaces with human-controlled vehicles as soon as they are introduced.

He also suggested a change in mind-set was needed so potential users of the vehicles were prepared to accept the technology more readily.

“It’s like going on a plane – it took some people many years to accept going on a plane without knowing who the pilot is, who the manufacturer is,” Mr Debbas said.

“This is the same thing. You’re putting your life in the hands of the manufacturer.

“So there are a lot of things to be worked on by the time the cars are out – we understand that.

“But today, launching these things is a giant step as a UAE brand, a UAE manufacturer with international partners. It is a giant step for the country.”

A 40-inch screen will include entertainment and video conferencing facilities. Victor Besa / The National
A 40-inch screen will include entertainment and video conferencing facilities. Victor Besa / The National

W Motors’s fully electric car will be produced in a new factory currently being built in Silicon Oasis, Dubai.

The vehicle – which will have a top speed of 160 kilometres per hour – was shown in private to Dubai’s rulers last week, and will be officially launched at the Shanghai Auto Show in April.

Other companies involved in the project include AKKA Technologies in Belgium, Austrian manufacturer Magna Steyr and Microsoft USA.

The prototype currently on display at the IDEX defence conference in Abu Dhabi is a "business" version of the car, incorporating four seats facing each other which can be used for meetings.

The car has four seats – the front two of which rotate so that they can either face forward or towards the other two passengers. Victor Besa / The National
The car has four seats – the front two of which rotate so that they can either face forward or towards the other two passengers. Victor Besa / The National

Controlled through a tablet, the front two seats rotate, and when facing forward passengers in the back will be able to view a 40-inch screen for video conferencing.

The car will also be able to search for shopping or eating out tips, based on the users' previous behaviour. Passengers enter the vehicle through two 3.2-long metre doors on electric hinges.

Initially, developers anticipate that the public will not be able to buy the car outright.

Instead, passengers will be able to book them over the internet, much like a Careem, hiring them out per hour. A "family" version would include a bed and additional entertainment features.

“If you have a meeting you could book it for two hours though an app and it will pick you up,” Mr Debbas said.

“It has a printer, a projector and conference call facilities – this is the new way of creating vehicles.

“It’s no longer about buying and driving a car. It’s about utilising a car depending on your needs.”

Updated: February 20, 2019 02:51 PM

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