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Friday, February 26, 2021

Careem hopes to bring driverless taxis to Qatar

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A NEXT module
A NEXT module

Qatar residents could be traveling to work or school in a driverless pod within the next decade, if limo booking firm Careem has its way.

The Dubai-based company, which launched its online and app services in Qatar in 2013, has partnered with American firm NEXT Future Transportation Inc. to bring their self-driving transport system to the GCC.

The two firms struck the deal after Dubai announced its Autonomous Transportation Strategy, an initiative that aims to make 25 percent of trips in the city driverless by 2030.

The pods will likely launch there first, but may head to Qatar sometime after 2020 – about the same time that the Doha Metro system takes off.

A hybrid solution

The pods, simply called Next, are “a hybrid between a taxi and a bus,” Careem’s Vice President of Business Development Bassel Al Nahlaoui said.

Speaking to Doha News, he explained that they pick people up and drop them off at their destinations in groups. 

Each pod can hold 10 people – with six sitting, and four standing.

They’re designed to link up with each other seamlessly on the move, providing mass transport to a variety of destinations without the need for bus stops, rails or dedicated tracks.

How it would work

A trip on a Next pod would begin with the Careem app, Al Nahlaoui explained:

“You would select where you want to be picked up – it would say, for example, that a pod was five minutes away. Then it would come to pick you up from your doorstep. In countries in the GCC, that’s very important in the summer months.”

The pod would then pick up any other passengers in the local area before joining the highway and connecting with other pods traveling in the same direction.

Al Nahlaoui accepts that pausing to pick up other passengers would cause “a slight delay,” but emphasized the pod’s potential for reducing traffic congestion, as it would decrease the number of cars on the road.

NEXT promotional material
NEXT promotional material

He also argued that the system’s ability to link up to other pods means that passengers would only travel to their destinations with others who are going to the same place, meaning minimum fuss at journey’s end.

“Once the pods connect on the highway, you would have instructions for people going to one destination to move to Pod 1, to another destination, Pod 2, and so on,” Al Nahlaoui explained.

These individual pods would then separate when the time came, and go off in their different directions, he said.

When asked about what it might cost, Careem said they anticipated a ride in a pod to cost between the price of a bus and taxi for the equivalent length of journey.

Launch target

Next has just produced their first full-scale prototype of the pods, as well as a working smaller-scale prototype that Careem plan to bring to Dubai soon, Al Nahlaoui said.

If development, testing and regulatory concerns all work out as planned, Careem hopes to have a Next service up and running in the GCC before 2020.

At the moment, its launch country is likely to be the UAE, but Al Nahlaoui told Doha News that the company hadn’t “nailed down” plans yet, adding that “we are open to discussions everywhere.”

Qatar is definitely on the company’s list of countries to target, he added.

Safety concerns

Although Dubai’s leader has made a clear pledge to introduce driverless technology, there are still concerns about its safety, particularly following a recent fatal accident in the US involving a Tesla car being driven on autopilot.

Al Nahlaoui acknowledges that the driverless car concept “still scares a lot of people,” and as a result, the company intends to employ a driver in each pod to start with.

“At the beginning, we will have a driver to make sure everything is fine, as this is a new technology. But as soon as driverless tech is safe and approved by authorities, we can switch,” he said.

If the pods prove to be a hit, Next has further ideas on how to develop their use, including for the delivery of goods.

What do you think of the idea? Thoughts?

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