Mobility: How Expo 2020 Dubai is beckoning a technology-led future
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Mobility: How Expo 2020 Dubai is beckoning a technology-led future

Mobility: How Expo 2020 Dubai is beckoning a technology-led future

The future of mobility is already upon us. Which direction are we headed in, what are some of the most important learnings from the region that will contribute to the grand vision, and most importantly, what are the stumbling blocks that we must be all too aware of?


Snarky comments, overall scepticism and outright ridicule – there weren’t a dearth of any of these when Elon Musk published a white paper on the Hyperloop concept in 2013. Eight years on, Musk has proved to not only be a visionary, but also a pragmatic one at that.

In November last year, the Dubai-based DP World-backed Virgin Hyperloop took the concept from paper to reality in a test run with two passengers transported by the system in Nevada.

One of the three core themes at Expo is mobility, and the UAE has been a frontrunner when it comes to demonstrating the future possibility of this sector. The Dubai Autonomous Transportation Strategy, for example, aims for 25 per cent of all transportation in the emirate to be smart and driverless by 2030. And it’s already had a healthy head start.

The Dubai Metro is the world’s longest driverless network and celebrated its 12th anniversary last month, having carried 1.706 billion passengers as of the end of August. The Dubai Taxi Corporation’s (DTC) Strategic Plan 2021-2023 meanwhile commits to converting 5 per cent of the city’s taxi fleet to autonomous mode by 2023 and having around 4,000 self-driving taxis by 2030 – making Dubai the first city outside of the US to feature this technology.

To that end, the Roads and Transport Authority (RTA) signed an agreement with General Motors-majority owned autonomous vehicle subsidiary, Cruise, for the latter to become the city’s exclusive provider of self-driving taxis and ride-hailing services until 2029. Autonomous modes of public transport don’t just make for Instagram-friendly photo-ops for the millions visiting the UAE each year, it makes sound economic sense too. Dubai expects the benefits of self-driving technologies to be valued at more than Dhs22bn per year.

As part of its 2030 vision, it is aiming to reduce transportation costs by Dhs900m annually and save Dhs1.5bn a year by reducing environmental pollution by 12 per cent using this self-driving technology. It also expects to generate annual economic returns of Dhs18bn in the process by improving the efficiency of the emirate’s transportation sector. That figure is only spurred on by the likes of technology such as the RTA’s drone taxi service which it trialled a few years ago, with the transport authority reportedly working on developing air corridors for these vehicles to operate within.

Delving into the future of aerial mobility will be the Dubai Airshow, which will run from November 14-18. “This year, we will be having conferences dedicated to ‘Advanced Aerial Mobility’ as part of the Aerospace 2050 Forum. The conferences will cover an array of themes, including the role of new technologies in revolutionising air travel, major changes happening in the cargo sector, global advancements in sustainability and autonomous transportation, in addition to new space services, satellite connectivity, and more,” says Tim Hawes, managing director at Tarsus, organisers of the Airshow.

At the Mobility district within the Expo, the Forster + Partners designed Mobility pavilion, called Alif, features the world’s largest passenger lift that can transport over 160 people at a go. Alif is built with a 330-metre track, part of which is underground, and at which some of the latest  mobility tech will be on display. Also on display will be nine-metre-tall historical giants of mobility whose innovations have shaped our current use of mobility as a concept.

The pavilion will also give attendees an opportunity to build their own robot or design their spaceship, witness demos of jetpacks and hoverboards, attend workshops about drones and also understand how mobility is fundamentally altering the future growth of cities with sustainable and innovative solutions such as solar-powered cycles. The pavilion will especially provide a glimpse into the smart cities of the future where artificial intelligence, big data, robotics, machine learning and autonomous transport all work together to redefine mobility.

“As a visitor in the pavilion, you will go through the ages, particularly in the Arab world, where we introduce you to the giants of mobility who have played a major part in human progress. That journey through time and space starts in the past, in the House of Wisdom, and it goes into the future. We want to shift the visitors’ perception on what mobility is and what its role is in the progress of humankind. We want them to come out and believe that they will have to be responsible participants in progressing the world,” says Marjan Faraidooni, chief experience officer, Expo 2020 Dubai.

Analysts have indicated that beyond modes of transport, the future of mobility could also lean heavily on innovation in fuel. Apart from sustainable fuels, a big push currently is towards hydrogen. South Korean auto major Hyundai, for example, has unveiled its Hydrogen Vision 2040, which is built on its hydrogen-powered fuel system. It says that it will debut a new version of a fuel cell system that is 30 per cent smaller, 50 per cent cheaper and twice as powerful as those currently available.

By 2028, it hopes for all its commercial vehicles including cars, trucks and buses to rely on this fuel system. Two years after that, it intends for its hydrogen-power system to reach cost parity with battery packs, making the adoption of it all the more ubiquitous.

Countries in the region, including the UAE and Saudi Arabia are rightly therefore forward-planning and building hydrogen economies. The UAE has formed a green hydrogen alliance that combines the efforts of Mubadala, ADNOC and ADQ. Saudi Arabia meanwhile aims to build a $5bn green hydrogen-based ammonia production facility located in NEOM which will produce green ammonia for global export. It is at the $500bn NEOM mega city situated in the northwest of Saudi though, where some of the finest innovations in the future of mobility might take form.

The clearest example of it is The Line project, a 170km city without cars or streets, that will instead be linked by an underground network of AI-enabled ultra-high speed transit systems and also a freight transport network. When realised, The Line aims to become a zero-carbon emissions city where you can get from any point to the next in a maximum of 20 minutes. Further proof of Saudi’s decision to invest in the future of mobility was the decision of its sovereign wealth fund, the Public Investment Fund, to back the Tesla-baiting electric car company Lucid Motors, helmed by Tesla S engineer Peter Rawlinson. Lucid’s first car hasn’t yet made it to market, but all the signs point towards the Nasdaq-listed company becoming a potential powerhouse that can take on Tesla itself.

Mobility as a concept
Hypermotion Dubai, an exhibition to discuss the changing nature of the logistics, mobility and transport sectors, will hold its inaugural event on the grounds of the Expo 2020 site from November 2-4.

“Our aim is to spark conversations on transport and logistics solutions as well as showcase innovations that will propel the UAE into the next era of mobility,” says Simon Mellor, CEO, Messe Frankfurt Middle East, the organisers of the event.

The event has well-known industry leaders including Abdullah Al Shamsi, senior director of Future of Things, Dubai Aviation Engineering Projects and Josh Giegel, CEO and co-founder of Virgin Hyperloop in attendance.

“The future of mobility will be decarbonised and digitalised,” affirms Mellor. “While we can look at government initiatives around the world – which includes Britain’s goal to ban the sale of new internal combustion engine vehicles by 2030 and France’s pledge to do the same by 2040 – achievable goals have already been set closer to home, in Dubai. The emirate’s Autonomous Transportation Strategy and the UAE’s ambition of setting up a hyperloop network proves that the country’s leadership is thinking well beyond 2030,” adds Mellor.

Thinking beyond the next decade is not optional. It’s ideas like these that will be discussed at the Expo itself, not least by way of the Expo’s official robotics partner, China-based Terminus Group which will deploy 150 AI and IoT-powered robots across the site. Also, challenging conventional notions of mobility and forcing a rethink of how we go about shaping the conversation around it over the coming decades, is the Expo’s automotive partner, Nissan.

“As the official automotive partner of Expo 2020 Dubai, Nissan looks towards leveraging this unique opportunity to work closely with governments and global stakeholders in the transition to a newer, greener and more sustainable chapter in the future of mobility,” says Thierry Sabbagh, managing director, Nissan Middle East.

“Utilising our global expertise in sustainable transportation and smart-city solutions, Nissan will help raise awareness among millions of visitors to Expo 2020 Dubai about the impact of our choices on the environment and the importance of collective action towards global issues. In addition to various panel discussions spread across the duration of Expo 2020 Dubai, Nissan will bring together exciting events, one of which will be showcasing the Ariya, our first EV crossover that serves as a representation of what is to come in the future of electrification,” he adds.

As the region pushes forward with a multi-pronged approach to the future of mobility, the common consensus is that the development of infrastructure will be key. “Infrastructure is another key challenge for the adoption of new technologies. Airports, for example, must have facilities and infrastructure built in accordance with the best standards and with state-of-the-art technologies, which might be a major challenge for countries with less sophisticated systems,” says Hawes from the Airshow. Mellor from Hypermotion seconds that thought.

“There is one crucial condition that must be met to enable such a grand transformation to mobility: improved infrastructure. Without laying the proper foundations to allow these solutions to exist, they will remain concepts. We’re lucky that change in this part of the world can be instigated quickly and effectively. With the added benefit of new projects and developments emerging all the time, infrastructure will undoubtedly play a crucial role in master-planning,” notes Mellor.

The 1,200km Etihad Rail line which will connect all seven emirates of the UAE to Saudi Arabia, with passenger and freight services executed along the route, is yet another case study of far-sighted infrastructure planning within the region.

In countries where infrastructure is lacking, it is the private sector that is stepping in to tie up the loose ends – in January, DP World, the world’s largest operators of marine ports and inland cargo terminals, signed a 20-year concession agreement with the government of Angola to operate the Multipurpose Terminal (MPT) at the Port of Luanda in Angola. It pledged to invest $190m over that period to overhaul its existing infrastructure and acquire new equipment to help increase the terminal’s annual throughput to approximately 700,000 TEUs per year.

Closer to home, DP World has shown what the Virgin Hyperloop could mean for cargo services. The DP World Cargospeed, which will be built using the zero-emission propulsion hyperloop system repurposed for cargo, will transport high-priority, time sensitive goods including fresh food and medical supplies as well as connect with other existing modes of road, rail and air transport at manufacturing parks, distribution centres, economic zones, and regional urban centres.

“We haven’t seen a new mode of mass transit in over a century and hyperloop will revolutionise the world in the same way the plane, train, or cargo ship did in its time. We hope to have hyperloop running in years, not decades – governments all over the world are interested in this technology. First we regulate and certify, then we start building for passengers and cargo,” said a spokesperson for DP World.

The UAE’s ambitions for mobility extend extraterrestrial as well – its ingenious Hope Probe successfully entered Mars’ orbit earlier this year. Besides, the UAE Space Agency has signed onto NASA’s Artemis Accords for space exploration, while the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC) has agreed with Japan’s ispace for the latter to deliver the Emirates Lunar Mission’s ‘Rashid’ rover to the Moon. The UAE is also working on the Mars 2117 Programme, which aims to build a human colony on the red planet within the next 100 years.

Before you relegate that to a fantastical state of mind and of ambition gone unchecked, pause and remind yourself of what they said about Musk only a few years ago.

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