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Smart Cities: Where science-fiction gets real

Service providers need to scale up to meet this rapidly evolving technology scenario

Gulf News

Back in 2011, a legal battle was contested between the technology giants Apple and Samsung, with Apple claiming that Samsung’s range of hand-held tablets infringed upon the patented design and user interface of its iPad.

Interestingly, one piece of evidence shown in court by Samsung’s lawyers was a clip from Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. The clip showed the film’s astronauts eating while watching a TV show on their own personal flat-screen tablet computers!

While Stanley Kubrick’s vision turned out to be eerily accurate, recent developments in the Smart City space suggest that his is not the only sci-fi film set to become reality. Indeed, with self-driving cars, high-speed pods, and the introduction of robocops all taking shape, science-fiction is getting real. And the UAE is at the forefront of all these developments.

The popular 1980s TV show Knight Rider featured an artificially intelligent, self-driving car that communicated with its driver. It seemed outlandish back then, but the concept is no longer confined to the imagination of Hollywood script writers.

While we will have to wait a bit longer for a completely autonomous vehicle, most high-end cars are now fitted with features such as adaptive cruise control, lane departure control, responsive braking, and park assist. And this is just the start.


SAE International, a US-based standards organisation previously known as the Society of Automotive Engineers, categorises cars with the above features as either Level 1 or 2 on the autonomous vehicle scale. But it’s at Level 3 where things really start to get interesting. At this level, the vehicle can be switched to autopilot, although a driver must be present to take back control when necessary.

Level 4 requires less control, with the driver able to take a nap while being chauffeured around. And at Level 5, the car is fully automated. The human element is genuinely superfluous at this stage; indeed, Level 5 vehicles might not even come with a seat or controls for a “driver”.

The most prominent figure in this space is Elon Musk from Tesla Inc. He was in Dubai recently for the World Government Summit and unequivocally stated his belief that fully-autonomous cars will be a reality in 10 years and capable of disrupting the traditional automotive industry inside 20 years.

During the same event, Dubai announced its vision to become a global driverless mobility leader by 2030. A stated aim of the Dubai Smart Autonomous Mobility Strategy is for 25 per cent of all journeys in the emirate to be transformed into driverless journeys by 2030. This target is well within reach as the Dubai Metro is already fully automated, while the Dubai Tram will be in Phase 2.

Autonomous aerial vehicle

Dubai has already penned a deal with Tesla to supply 200 cars fitted with company’s second-generation hardware suite that improves autopilot capabilities and allows the cars to achieve full autonomy. Dubai also plans to launch the first-ever manned autonomous aerial vehicle (AAV) by July 2017, with tests already underway in the skies above the emirate.

Global spending on Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) to grow from $85.9 million (Dh315.2 million) in 2016 to $268.9 million in 2020, which represents a compound annual growth rate of 33.3 per cent.

But autonomous vehicles are just one strand of the broader smart transport movement that will prove so crucial to the success of the Smart City concept. And the parallels with Hollywood are everywhere you look.

In the 1987 James Bond movie The Living Daylights, one of the actors climbs into a pod that travels through an elevated pipeline at ridiculously high speeds. You can probably guess what’s coming next. Yes, near-supersonic ground travel via a pod is coming to a place near you soon!

That’s because Dubai has agreed a deal with US-based start-up Hyperloop-One to build a vacuum-sealed pod transportation system that would reduce the travel time between Dubai and Abu Dhabi to just 12 minutes. The company expects to perform its first public trial at its Nevada development facility later this year.

Face-recognition technology

1987 was also the year of Robocop, and 30 years later Dubai’s first robot police officer will start pounding the streets in May. Equipped with face-recognition technology that can scan faces from up to 20 metres away, Dubai’s “robocop” bears a touchscreen on its chest that members of the public can use to contact the police to report crime and pay traffic fines.

From a commercial point of view, service providers need to scale up to meet this rapidly evolving technology scenario. An advanced communications network forms the backbone of all these advancements, so the role of telecommunications players will become increasingly important.

While it will be some time before these technologies see widespread adoption and start impacting the day-to-day lives of residents, the growing popularity of the Smart City movement means their emergence can no longer be dismissed as fantasy. So allow me to welcome you to the future, where science-fiction meets reality!

The columnist is group vice-president and regional managing director for the Middle East, Africa and Turkey at global ICT market intelligence and advisory firm International Data Corporation (IDC) He can be contacted via Twitter @JyotiIDC