Self-Driving Cars in Abu Dhabi

Abu Dhabi is set to fully introduce autonomous vehicles to its public transportation fleet by the end of 2023 thanks to its strong regulatory framework, market demand, and tech-friendliness.

Self-driving cars, which until recently belonged to the realm of science fiction, have become a reality over the last decade, with the first commercially available autonomous vehicle hitting the market in 2014. In tandem with the growing acceptability, autonomous driving has reached new heights of sophistication. Now, so-called Level 3 and Level 4 self-driving vehicles are available in the market that can travel smoothly and more-or-less independently on most roads and terrains, even though a licensed driver must be present behind the wheel—just to be on the safe side. Many commentators believe that Level 5, truly driverless cars, which have achieved full automation with zero reliance on human drivers, are just around the corner.

The UAE is the only country in the Middle East and North African region that has become an early adopter of this new class of vehicles. Many developments in this regard took place in the UAE in 2023, although the foundations of the country’s autonomous transportation were laid in 2016 with the launch of the Autonomous Transportation Strategy by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. One of the latest developments was the beginning of the test phase of self-driving buses by the Emirates Driving Company (EDC) in Abu Dhabi. “The autonomous buses offer a significantly safer method of driving, and the fact they are powered by electricity and hydrogen vastly reduces their contribution towards climate change,” according to Zawya citing the EDC’s CEO, Khalid Al Shemeili.

Abu Dhabi’s centerpiece project in autonomous public transportation, however, is simply known as TXAI. Unveiled by the Emirati IT pioneer, Bayanat, at the Abu Dhabi Smart City Summit 2021, the project involves the dispatching of a fleet of self-driving taxis into the streets of Abu Dhabi. The trial phase will be limited to Yas Island only, where automated taxi rides will be available to and from nine designated stops.

The project will be up and running by the end of 2023 and, pending its successful implementation, TXAI is likely to expand to the rest of Abu Dhabi and the UAE. The company has already carried on a relatively thorough mapping of the entire country. “The company created the digital terrain modeling for the entire UAE,” pointed out Bayanat CEO, Hasan Al Hosani, who sat down with TBY. The Integrated Transport Centre (ITC) of the Department of Municipalities and Transport (DMT) has finalized a partnership deal with Bayanat for mapping and surveying services that will be crucial for the widespread use of autonomous transportation in Abu Dhabi.

The market for autonomous vehicles is expected to grow rapidly in Abu Dhabi in the near future. Bayanat, the company behind the TXAI project, for example, has seen positive growth since its involvement in the business of autonomous vehicles, with its imminent initial public offering (IPO) being dubbed the “IPO of the year.” The sale of self-driving vehicles and associated technologies will likely become a significant market in Abu Dhabi in 2023-2024, as the Emirate of 1.45 million people needs to have at least 1 million cars on its roads at all times.

It has often been noted in the automobile industry that racing leagues such as Formula One have contributed to the popularity of cars as well as the development of several new technologies. Traditional automakers and their engineers often first come up with an innovation for their racing divisions, but then go on to put it into use in their commercial vehicles as well. The V engine, carbon fiber chassis, and steering wheel buttons, among a long list of other features, have all originated from racing cars, finally ending up in your everyday vehicle. It stands to reason then that establishing a racing event for self-driving cars can indeed contribute to the improvement of autonomous transportation.

Abu Dhabi launched one of the world’s first autonomous racing competitions in 2023. It was announced in March 2023 that the Emirate will launch a racing league for self-driving cars as well as drones with a prize pool of over AED8 million (USD2.25 million).

“Set to be the world’s largest autonomous racing league, activities will begin with the first autonomous car race in 2Q2024,” according to the Arabian Business. Yas Marina Circuit has been chosen as the racing league’s location. It will be during this forthcoming competition that self-driving solutions will be installed on Super Formula cars for the first time in history.

As Super Formula cars are much faster and more prone to accident than an ordinary road car, the successful implementation of autonomous driving on them will be a huge step forward for the industry. “A core goal of the Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League is to push the boundaries of autonomous mobility by hosting challenges to advance R&D in autonomous racing and AI,” remarks the Arabian Business citing the event’s organizers.