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Self-driving cars are all set to be on UAE and Saudi roads. But will it improve mobility?

Governments must integrate innovation to allow cities to grow with existing transit systems that benefit the people there.

Self-driving cars are all set to be on UAE and Saudi roads. But will it improve mobility?
[Source photo: Anvita Gupta/Fast Company Middle East]

Most estimates of the adoption of fully autonomous vehicles (AVs) fall in the range of 20 to 30 years from now, but already, UAE and Saudi Arabia are neck-and-neck in the race to bring them into the mainstream. 

In July, the UAE approved the first preliminary national license for self-driving cars, granting it to the Chinese company WeRide.

Dubai aims to have 25% of its transportation achieve fully autonomous operations by 2030. It’s also looking to deploy 4,000 AVs by 2030, making Dubai the first non-US city to commercialize cruise self-driving cars.

Along with the UAE, Saudi Arabia also focuses heavily on integrating AVS in its transport strategy and aims for 15% of its public transport vehicles to be autonomous by 2030.

The future generation of transport in Saudi Arabia is primarily taking shape in its mega developments – NEOM, the $500 billion futuristic mega-city, and the luxury Red Sea Project.

These cities are designed to be sustainable by introducing new transport systems based entirely on autonomous mobility.

“Saudi Arabia, in particular, has some super ambitious goals,” says Yury Kornitsky, Principal – Automotive, Industrial Goods and Services, Infrastructure, and Transportation and Travel at Kearney Middle East & Africa. “What’s interesting is how they’re weaving autonomous tech into their big projects. Consider NEOM and the Red Sea, where they’re rolling out these autonomous, emissions-free fleets for road, rail, and even fancy air travel. And it doesn’t stop there; they’ve got plans for autonomous fleets in projects like The King Salman Park in Riyadh and the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Thuwal.”

In the UAE, BaseTracK introduced autonomous trucks in partnership with the Ras Al Khaimah Economic Zone. Dubai South and Evocargo have signed agreements for the UAE’s first autonomous vehicle trials in cargo logistics, including Evocargo’s EVO. 


Experts point out that AVs can humanize cities by amplifying the number of shared rides, reducing the need for parking, and making room for more people-friendly infrastructure like parks and bike lanes. 

“It’s hard not to get excited about the potential impacts AVs could have, especially for some of the most vulnerable,” says Richard Felton, Senior Practice Manager, Automotive, at Amazon Web Services.  “In a world with an aging population, improving safe mobility options for seniors could be powerful in keeping seniors connected to the people, places, and things most important to maintaining a high quality of life. AVs also significantly help younger people without licenses and people with disabilities.”

With AVs, cities can be redesigned to prioritize pedestrians, cyclists, and green spaces rather than cars. “This can lead to more vibrant and livable urban environments, with less space dedicated to parking and more space for community activities,” says Kornitsky.

Another plus, Felton points out, is the opportunity to improve equitable access to transit for communities in need. The cost of car ownership in these communities is proportionally higher. More access to car share and the potential to remove barriers and costs like insurance could make it easier, faster, and less expensive for more people to travel.  

In April, the kingdom’s Ministry of Transport and Logistic Services launched a trial of self-driving electric cars as part of the government’s efforts to support and develop progressive transportation systems.

Deputy Minister of Transport and Logistics Rumaih Al-Rumaih stated that by launching this trial, the ministry aims to “reduce the number of transport-related accidents and fatalities, improve intra-city mobility, and minimize the transportation sector’s impact on the environment.”

Experts agree that a properly functioning autonomous mobility ecosystem will reduce accidents by half, where the human-driving factor is marginalized. 

“AVs have the potential to significantly reduce the number of traffic accidents, injuries, and fatalities by eliminating human error as a primary cause of crashes. This can create safer and more walkable urban environments,” says Kornitsky.

On the environmental front, autonomous mobility will pave the way towards full sector electrification, eliminating transport-related emissions.


Already, the roads are clogged with cars at peak hours, and pedestrians and cyclists are starved for space. As Dubai and Riyadh look to curb their carbon emissions, continuing to prioritize cars in urban places is more and more of a problem.

Will the AV boom then add to car congestion?  

It is estimated that there are some 1.5 billion cars in the world. Most of these cars are parked the majority of the time. Felton says, “In theory, if autonomous vehicles are used in a car share model and can accommodate the needs of multiple users, it should reduce the number of cars and congestion.”

“It is also expected that connected cars will be able to communicate with each other and eliminate some of the contributing factors to traffic congestion like braking, hesitation, and speed differential,” adds Felton.

Kornitsky agrees. “AVs can communicate with each other and traffic infrastructure, leading to smoother traffic flow and reduced congestion. This will also result in shorter travel times and less time wasted in traffic, improving city residents’ overall quality of life.”


But the swift ascendance of self-driving cars has urban planners in a tizzy. To reach that point, reshaping transit, eliminating parking and street space used for private cars, and increasing space for pedestrians and bikes, cities like Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Riyadh must make a concerted effort to plan accordingly, starting now.

Experts assert that countries must approach this with consideration and avoid the mistakes cities made when cars became widespread after World War II.

“These ambitions are not without challenges, from improving the capabilities of the vehicles and the development of AV-friendly infrastructure to increasing public willingness to use autonomous vehicles,” says Felton.

The industry looks at autonomy using a five-level scale, from aiding a driver to fully autonomous driving. Most AVs today are capable of Level 2 functions such as parking assists and lane centering. 

“Moving to Level 3 to 5 requires improvements to vehicle onboard sensors and processing technologies and a willingness to adopt,” says Felton.

“But regulatory challenges and cybersecurity threats are significant obstacles as well,” says Felton. 

“AVs rely on advanced computing and machine learning, which can be vulnerable to cyber-attacks,” adds Kornitsky.

He says that the establishment of robust regulatory and legal frameworks, as well as the provision of certification and permits, is paramount. “These frameworks must cover issues like liability in the event of accidents, data privacy, etc.”

Also, integrating AVs and other autonomous mobility solutions with existing transportation systems can be complex. Coordinating with public transportation networks, managing traffic flow, and ensuring smooth transitions between autonomous and non-autonomous vehicles are some of the challenges that must be addressed.

Another big barrier is adequate charging infrastructure — AVs are likely to be electric vehicles (EVs), too – and the ability of the grid to accommodate thousands of electric autonomous vehicles without significant upgrades. 

“UAE is expected to have 20 cars per public charging point vs EU’s target of 10 – the current number for UAE is 9, but this could be better than benchmarks as the adoption has just started; a similar trend was observed in other markets. UAE and KSA require an investment of $1.6 billion by 2030 in public charging infrastructure to meet current estimates,” says Kornitsky.

“Another very specific challenge is the seasonal sand storms and the impact wind, dust, and visibility will have on sensors and their ability to perform,” adds Felton.


Interestingly, although experts say AV adoption is one of the biggest challenges, according to the latest research from YouGov, nearly half (49%) of all residents in the UAE say that they would purchase a self-driving car if it became available in the next five years. 

The future may well be driverless cars, but experts say public support is vital, which means addressing concerns about safety, job changes, and how this affects the environment. There are fears about its capabilities and ability to put humans out of work.

“We need to be transparent and educate folks about the benefits and safety measures,” says Kornitsky. 

This means cities stand at a crossroads: They can’t let AVs chaotically take over their cities, as regular cars did 100 years ago. They have to make a concrete plan.

One thing is certain: the AV boom will be sooner than we expect, and governments will need to integrate this innovation to allow cities to grow with existing transit systems and ultimately be more beneficial to the people living there.

“AVs should work with regular ones and be integrated into the overall public transport system. Managing traffic, coordinating with existing transportation systems, and making sure the shift from regular to AVs is smooth – these are all challenges we need to tackle,” adds Kornitsky.

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Suparna Dutt D’Cunha is the Editor at Fast Company Middle East. She is interested in ideas and culture and cover stories ranging from films and food to startups and technology. She was a Forbes Asia contributor and previously worked at Gulf News and Times Of India. More