UAE Previews Autonomous Future at DriftX

A new conference highlights air, land and sea AVs in preparation for widespread adoption – hopefully – across the Gulf.

The Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League (A2RL) hosted its inaugural event on the Yas Marina Circuit in the days following DriftX 2024. (Sebastian Blanco)

Publicly available autonomous vehicles have been operating in Abu Dhabi since 2021, providing over 16,000 rides covering more than 300,000 km (186,400 miles). If the organizers and supporters of the inaugural DriftX conference have their way, these numbers will soon be dwarfed by autonomous vehicles of all types moving people and goods across the UAE and the wider MENA region.

A handful of automated cabs, operating under the TXAI brand, were available for use during DriftX 2024. (Sebastian Blanco)

So far, all of these autonomous trips have been provided by the eight free, app-hailable AVs that are currently roaming around Yas and Saadiyat Islands. Motorsport fans will recognize Yas Island as the location of the Yas Marina Circuit used by Formula 1 and other racing events. The weekend after DriftX, for example, the Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League held its inaugural event there. It’s all part of an intense governmental push to turn the Emirates into a global leader in AVs.

A2Z displayed its autonomous passenger shuttle at DriftX 2024, and remote controlled an automated vehicle operating in South Korea from its booth in Abu Dhabi. (Sebastian Blanco)

One of the strongest AV proponents in the UAE is the Smart and Autonomous Vehicle Industry (SAVI) cluster. SAVI was created in October 2023 by the Abu Dhabi Department of Economic Development (ADDED) and Abu Dhabi Investment Office (ADIO). Nayef Shahin, director of innovation and knowledge at ADIO, told SAE Media during DriftX that the various AV projects the cluster supports are meant not just to promote the technology, but the economy as well. Shahin said he expects SAVI will contribute around 44 billion dirhams ($12 billion USD) to the UAE’s GDP by 2045 and will also create up to 38,000 jobs. AV companies from around the world have heard the sound of money shaking loose in the region and have signaled their interest.

Bayanat has developed advanced digital twin maps of Abu Dhabi to support AVs. (Sebastian Blanco)

“Today, our focus is working with partners who would like to expand their footprint, who want to utilize Abu Dhabi as their second base or an extension of their HQs, to serve the rest of the world,” he said. “Today, Abu Dhabi is well positioned. The availability of talent pool, availability of investment, it’s all there.”

Bayanat leads the way

Bayanat started in the UAE 50 years ago and has evolved from traditional mapping and surveying to focus on high-tech, AI-powered geospatial analytics. Some of this technology is used in the eight AVs that have driven all those autonomous miles mentioned above. The small fleet includes boxy shuttles and modified sedans, including a GAC Aion LX, that operate under the TXAI name (a blend of taxi and AI). Bayanat partners with WeRide on the SAE Level 4 vehicles for full-stack software and hardware solutions.

Riding in a TXAI on Yas Island, the software proved itself more than capable, threading the vehicle through crowds of people and around temporary traffic cones and the backed-up non-autonomous vehicles all trying to get to DriftX. TXAI’s starts, stops and lane mergers were smoother and more “human” than other AVs I’ve ridden in, showing promise that when the AV revolution actually comes to the UAE, it’s likely to be a comfortable one.

A large DriftX sign welcomed visitors to the first DriftX event on Yas Island in Abu Dhabi. (Sebastian Blanco)

Bayanat’s four autonomous shuttles can carry 10 people (8 with a safety driver) each and have a range of 140 km (87 miles). DC fast charging allows the EVs to fully charge in 90 minutes. The self-driving tech uses software written by Bayanat and its partners and can be remote controlled from the Integrated Transport Centre (ITC) on Yas Island, which also monitors local traffic. A Bayanat representative told SAE Media that further expansion will depend on interest from the ITC, who will decide if it is safe to put more of these AVs on the road. These shuttles were manufactured in China, with mapping and app development done by Bayanat.

Remote control: Abu Dhabi, Korea connected by AVs

Nayef Shahin, director of innovation and knowledge at ADIO, at DriftX 2024. (Sebastian Blanco)

Bayanat has more than 16 different partners from 20 different countries. South Korea’s Autonomous A2Z displayed its AV shuttle at DriftX and said it has plans to mass-produce around 2,500 vehicles starting in 2025 for use in South Korea, Abu Dhabi, Singapore and some European countries. A2Z remotely controlled a vehicle that was moving 7,000 km (4,350 miles) away in K-City, South Korea, from its booth at DriftX. Hyunwoo (Martin) Kim, A2Z project manager, told SAE Media that this kind of teleoperation can help the company fulfill the mission the Korean government is specifically looking for.

“If you look at the provinces in Korea, there are many rural areas where the average age of drivers is around 56-58, which means there are not many people who want to be a bus driver,” Kim said. “They’re lacking the people. So the government actually asked us to operate it autonomously.”

A2Z believes it is important to have remote drivers to handle edge cases and is hoping that each remote operator will be able to control between 10 and 20 shuttles. Kim said A2Z, which counts many former Hyundai Motor Group engineers among its staff, benefits from Hyundai’s AV work that has already tapped Korean suppliers to work on autonomous vehicle components.

DriftX was not limited to road-based AVs. The event’s theme was “Air Land Sea,” and featured plenty of EVTOL and water-based AVs. Passenger-carrying flying AVs are not as advanced as wheeled AVs, as was made clear when one of the drones fell out of the sky and into the bay during a demonstration flight. No one was injured.

Throughout the conference, government representatives repeatedly pointed to the government’s strong and ongoing support for AVs across all three domains, even when things don’t always work out right the first time. SAVI’s Shahin was quick to point out that the crash should not be considered a failure.

“It’s not a setback,” he said. “This is an opportunity. Innovation is all about iteration. It’s about learning from the errors and improving. I think this is a great opportunity for the company to learn what went wrong, what should be improved, and how to make sure this never happens again. And this is why we test."