The emergence of innovative artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning technology is increasingly putting the use of data at the heart of business processes across multiple industry verticals.‘Big data’ real-time analysis by highly sophisticated, AI-powered technology has the potential to enable business leaders to make instant yet informed decisions that could dramatically improve efficiency and productivity.Already in use across a wide range of industries, from banking and finance to manufacturing and healthcare, public and private public transport space is also poised to yield significant benefits in the era of smart mobility.A step change for road (and rail) networks globally, the integration of intelligent transport and mobility systems that operate through a nexus of technologies and data analytics allows urban planners and public transport authorities to co-ordinate citywide movement in the most efficient way possible.By assessing and continuously acting upon available data, which is collected and distributed through tools such as 5G networks and Internet of Things (IoT) sensors, this promises faster, seamless travelling experiences coupled with the opportunity to reduce carbon emissions and align with government net zero strategy.
Driving up efficiency
What does the concept of smart mobility mean in practice? On the roads, intelligent transportation systems can manage traffic much more efficiently, deploying smart traffic controls and setting variable speed limits, along with real-time responsive messaging signage, to safely streamline both driver and passenger movement.
For public transport networks, smart technology can optimise timetabling on any given day, and in advance, contingent upon the volume of tickets purchased and requirements of individual passengers. This can also help drive up efficiency by dramatically reducing the number of ‘ghost trips’ (nominal passenger volume on board) undertaken while also allowing operators to implement more efficient fare collection systems.
Bus and train passengers and car users also stand to benefit by making use of real-time trip planning technologies that deliver optimal route recommendations based on up-to-the-second results analysis from millions of aggregated datasets. Smart data can be used in such a way that makes public transport a much more attractive option, by greatly enhancing network efficiency; thereby encouraging citizens to make the switch to significantly more sustainable forms of travel.
Governments across the GCC have already recognised the potential of this next-generation technology in augmenting the quality of living for their respective citizens. A 2022 report from the International Data Corporation (IDC) estimated that GCC countries had invested approximately $2.3 billion in smart city technologies as at FY2021, demonstrating the strong political and financial support authorities in the Middle East are committing to the potential of smart mobility.
Pioneering smart mobility
Dubai has been mapping the path to becoming a world-leading smart city for over a decade. In 2014, the emirate launched the Smart Dubai initiative and announced its aim to convert 25 per cent of transportation modalities to autonomous modes by 2030.
The strategy is forecasted to, ultimately, generate additional revenues of up to AED22 billion ($6 billion) by dramatically reducing transport costs for citizens; significantly reducing carbon emissions and transport-related accidents; and boosting overall productivity by minimising the amount of wasted time individuals spend travelling in an inefficient manner.
In order to help make this bold ambition a reality, in 2017 Dubai’s Roads and Transport Authority (RTA) launched an Enterprise Command and Control Centre (EC3) for integrated control of the emirate’s various transit systems. Built at a cost of AED335 million ($91 million), the EC3 allows for informed decision-making across public transit networks through smart big data analytics, with AI technology also deployed to help manage accidents or crises.
In Abu Dhabi, Masdar City was an early pioneer in the smart mobility space, designing a Personal Rapid Transport System comprised of driverless pods. This was followed by the launch of the Navya Autonom self-driving shuttle service in 2018. Fast forward to October 2023 and Masdar City has been named as the location for the emirate’s Smart and Autonomous Vehicle Industries (SAVI) cluster, which aims to position Abu Dhabi as a leading smart and autonomous vehicles hub focused on making significant contributions across air, land and sea mobility applications.
Last year, Abu Dhabi Airports also signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with French engineering firm Groupe ADP to explore the concept of advanced air mobility (AAM) in the emirate. This is centred on a new form of smart air transportation that involves vertical take-off and landings to move people and cargo much more efficiently.
The amount of public capital flowing into these technologies is significant – according to Frost & Sullivan data with Saudi Arabia and the UAE collectively set to invest nearly $50 billion in mobility-focused smart mobility projects by 2025. This further reinforces the high degree of importance national governments are placing on smart mobility, and the economic potential they believe the industry holds.
Private sector opportunities
One area that has attracted particularly notable levels of both public and private investment is smart parking, and the UAE is proving to be a burgeoning market. In 2022, the RTA in Dubai launched a smart parking project covering the Al Rigga and World Trade Centre districts, making use of smart sensors and real-time data to achieve faster, easier, and denser parking.
This year, Qatar’s transport ministry launched a similar scheme to optimise parking spaces in the country, with the goal to reduce traffic congestion and improve urban life. The Doha Metro has also implemented smart urban mobility technology with a similar aim to boost the city’s green credentials and allow for more efficient travel, with automatic fare collection.
While smart mobility as an industry is inevitably dominated by the public sector, given the crucial role public authorities play in national infrastructure, this strong government backing has also paved the way for increasing levels of private sector interest and involvement. The UAE’s private smart parking market, for example, was valued at over $170 million in 2022 and is expected to grow at a rate of almost 20 per cent through to 2028, according to data from US based TechSci Research.
Opportunities for the private sector to capitalise on future-forward transportation solutions are plentiful with the Middle East increasingly positioning itself as a smart mobility research and development (R&D) hub. The UAE and Saudi Arabia have both announced plans to localise mobility-related supply chains, including vehicle manufacturing, vehicle-locating devices, and manufacturing processes, in a bid to encourage private enterprises to set down roots in the region.
Private sector companies in this space are increasingly attracted to the Gulf, not only because of the amount of capital that is being deployed by national governments, but also the accommodative regulatory environment that exists in the region – which is a global leader in facilitating innovative action.
Most recently, in mid- November, Saudi Arabia’s Transport General Authority issued a licence allowing for the development of hydrogen trains, in what promises to be a major step forward for innovative and sustainable transportation in the Middle East. This comes on the back of the February 2023 UAE Ministry of Energy and Industry launch of a Smart Mobility Think Tank.
The think tank will bring together experts and decision makers from the public and private sectors and academia to build and share knowledge on intelligent mobility, develop innovative transport solutions, and inform related policies and legislation; positioning the country as a global centre of excellence and innovation for the smart mobility ecosystem.
Sustainable growth on track
Smart mobility solutions are poised for exponential growth and adoption across the GCC and broader Middle East because they form a crucial part of the region’s strategic vision and time-sensitive ambition to diversity its economies away from oil and gas towards a more sustainable future.
The potential of smart mobility to make national economies more sustainable is likely to come into increased focus as Dubai gears up to host the global COP28 climate change summit. The efficiencies-enhancing raison d’être of smart mobility is a key driver in supporting the UAE’s carbon emissions reduction goal. A 2023 report by HSBC estimated that Dubai’s smart mobility initiatives alone could see environmental pollution in the emirate drop by 12 per cent.
By making public transport more efficient and encouraging citizens to use available and reliable networks and reduce reliance on their own hydrocarbon-fuelled vehicles, smart mobility can both reduce the overall number of trips taken and make those that are necessary, less energy intensive and more sustainable.
Dubai’s RTA has already begun implementing a long-term strategy to achieve net zero emissions on public transport by 2050 – and smart mobility solutions will inevitably form a crucial part of that strategy, including the futuristic spectacle of a proposed flying air taxi service.
The smart mobility industry is innovating at such a rapid pace that it is impossible to predict exactly what the space – and our cities - will look like in five or 10 years’ time.
Whatever new technologies emerge from the hotbed of innovation currently characterising activity in the Middle East, and further afield, big data will be at the heart of crafting public transportation systems that are fit for the future. The advent of more sophisticated and widespread autonomous vehicles and micromobility solutions, along with increasingly advanced AI-powered sensors typify the new technologies that will significantly alter the face of public and private transportation.
GCC gateway cities with legacy transportation systems are already putting innovation into practice and transforming the way we travel by piloting and adopting future-proofed sustainable transport solutions. At the same time, new mega-projects like Saudi Arabia’s NEOM are pushing the boundaries to create sustainable, safe and seamlessly connected multi-modal mobility ecosystem models for the post net-zero by 2050 era.