Masdar takes lead as transport technology hub

Masdar City is set for the roll out of the second phase of its autonomous transport network, while Masdar is researching and creating sustainable transport systems that are ready for the region

Tags: AutomobileAutonomous vehicleDARPA - Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (www.darpa.mil)Department of Transport Abu DhabiElectric vehicleMasdarSiemensToyotaUnited Arab Emirates
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Masdar takes lead as transport technology hub Stephen Severance, Head of Program Management and Marketing, Sustainable Real Estate at Masdar.
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By  Mark Sutton Published  February 28, 2018

The UAE is looking to take the lead in many different areas of technology, but in the field of autonomous transport, Masdar City, home to one of the country’s longest established vehicle projects is changing up a gear with the announcement of the next phase in its personal rapid transit system (PRT). Masdar, Abu Dhabi’s renewable energy company, established the world’s first permanent autonomous PRT back in 2010, and is now set to begin the second stage of its driverless transport plan.

Masdar’s PRT connects the Masdar Institute of Science & Technology and the parking lot, part of the Masdar City development, a sustainable planned city, which mixes R&D with real world technology deployment. The PRT runs on a 2km long, closed loop, which operates underneath the raised podium of Masdar’s first buildings. The network uses four-person transport pods, controlled by a tablet, to move passengers between two main stations, 18 hours a day. Since launch, over two million passengers have used the network, without accident, and with system availability and vehicle reliability consistently exceed 99.6% and 99.9% respectively.

The initial plan for Masdar’s autonomous transport was to have a network that served the entire Masdar City development, however the plan was revised with the existing PRT deployed to serve the first stage and to act as a pilot project. During 2017, Masdar hosted a global competition for for the second stage, a one kilometre network to link Masdar Institute, the headquarters of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) and the recently announced ‘My City Centre Masdar’ retail development. At Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week 2018 last month, Masdar announced that French autonomous vehicle producer NAVYA had won the competition to partner on stage two of the autonomous transport plans.

Steve Severance, Head of Program Management and Marketing, Sustainable Real Estate at Masdar, explained that Masdar’s transport plans have changed and evolved with the plans for Masdar City, the growth of the development, and also with changes in technology and the experience gained with the current PRT.

“We implemented this [first PRT] in 2008, at that time we were looking for a single transportation system to cover all of Masdar City,” Severance said. “We rethought our masterplan, and today there are several different modes of transportation that are important to us, the PRT is just one of those.”

In the ten years since 2008, when the PRT project began, Severance noted that there have been three main technology advances that have influenced the approach that Masdar is taking to transport today: the rise of the smartphone and mobile apps, the decreased cost of solar power, and the boom in autonomous vehicle research.

Since 2008, smartphone ownership has become pervasive, and many governments have invested in mobile apps and services, he said. This has set the expectation among people that they want to interact with smart city systems, including transport, through the convenience and ease of access of a smart phone, so autonomous transport solutions need more of a focus on how users can interact.

The drop in price of solar power, from a subsidised and somewhat experimental technology, to being one of the cheapest forms of energy available, means that particularly for sustainable, carbon neutral developments such as Masdar, solar is an important consideration as power source.

In the field of autonomous transport, Severance said that the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, (DARPA) funding several competitions for self-driving vehicles was a major jumpstart for autonomous vehicle technology, which has led to great strides in the technology since 2008.

Masdar’s transportation competition set out the requirements for the new system, which included being a driverless, zero emissions system, which would be flexible in operating between different stops and stations, and which could be integrated and tracked with the existing Masdar City transportation management system. Transport systems also need to be able to operate out of doors in the UAE climate.

One major change from Masdar’s original plans was the requirement for the new solution to be able to operate in an open environment, integrated with other transport and pedestrians. The initial intention for Masdar City was for the whole development to be car-free, with all buildings on raised podium, and an autonomous transport system running underneath, but this has been changed in favour of integrating driverless and regular vehicles in one system.

“We have come down to the ground, we have cars on the inside of Masdar City, and we are a lot more realistic both from a cultural viewpoint and a technology viewpoint,” Severance said. “Once you get to Masdar City, you should walk or take public transport inside the city, but people really want to be able to drive their car to their office or their apartment. So as we expand, [autonomous transport] will no longer be isolated and indoors, it will be integrated with pedestrians, with the traffic lights, and we will be introducing the infrastructure for that.”

For the second phase of the transport network, NAVYA will supply the fully autonomous, battery-powered, 15-passenger autonomous shuttle vehicles that will serve the route. Passengers will be able select their destination on a digital map inside the vehicle, and the vehicles will run at around 25kph on dedicated routes or lanes that intersect with the roadways and pedestrian routes. The system is undergoing testing, and is expected to carry passengers by 2019.

The new route is expected to carry a larger volume of passengers than the PRT, particularly as it will serve the upcoming mall and community centre project. By the end of next year, it will also be serving around 1,500 apartments, so the larger capacity system will be required. Severance said that the system is more ‘last mile’, rather than door-to-door, but the system has been designed and customised to take into account the prevalent weather conditions in the UAE, and to carry passengers in comfort.

Christian Le Borgne, COO of NAVYA, said that the system has been adapted for Masdar: “We believe that we have created a product that is ideal for urban transportation autonomous, electric, safe, reliable, and economic. We understand the challenges of the climate, regarding battery performance and passenger comfort, and have customised our vehicle to meet the demanding specifications of Masdar City, and its residents and visitors.”

The hot weather conditions have been something of challenge for Masdar’s sustainable transport programs, Severance said: “We are doing a pilot in the summer to make sure we have an acceptable battery response time, and also an acceptable comfort level for passengers.

“This is a lesson we have learnt along the way about the difficulty the batteries have in this heat. Before 2010, there were almost no electric vehicles available for commercial sale, and we did some testing with a manufacturer, and the manufacturer came to the conclusion that its vehicles, back in 2010-2011, were not ready for the Middle East temperatures. It’s not a unique challenge to the region, it is a problem for any hot country.

“In public transportation, you walk in and expect it to be chilly - you can open the door, let all the cool air out and that it will be instantly cool again - whereas when you get in your private vehicle, you expect three minutes of uncomfortable heat, you expect time before the car can deliver cold. So in a public transportation system, we need to demonstrate that we can do that, as well have acceptable battery life,” he said.

Masdar has applied some of the lessons learned from another of its transportation projects, the Eco-Bus, to extend battery reliability and passenger comfort, and the testing will show if further adaptations are required.

One big advantage the new system will have over the PRT is flexibility, Severance said. While the PRT runs on a pre-determined route, with magnets embedded in the road way, the new solution will be use satellite navigation for guidance, meaning it can be run anywhere, and although Masdar will be running the shuttles on a separate track, the system is capable of driving any route once to learn the route, and then being able to run autonomously from there. The infrastructure required for communications is minimal, as is the time required to set new routes. When the system was demonstrated for the Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week at ADNEC, the route was set up in less than a day, he added.

Masdar is also working more closely with the Abu Dhabi Department of Transport (DoT) on the new network for regulatory issues and more. Because the shuttle system will be interacting with the same traffic signals as normal cars there is a need to ensure that all regulatory requirements are met.

Severance said: “One of the big learnings in the past ten years is to get the regulatory body involved much sooner. This time around we have the DoT on the evaluation committee with us, and we signed an MoU with the DOT at Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week, to be a test bed for sustainable and autonomous transportation technologies in Abu Dhabi.

“We will have to do a full safety analysis and evaluation with the DoT, we will be going through all the authority approvals, and conducting some testing in the summer. What we are proposing is a step forward, but we are walking, we are not proposing that we run - everybody needs to be comfortable with this next phase.”

TRANSPORT ROADMAP

The new MoU with the DoT highlights Masdar’s future plans for sustainable and autonomous transport, which go beyond its own transport network. Under the agreement, which was signed at Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week, the two will cooperate in the study, testing and evaluation of sustainable, electrical and autonomous transport technologies. The partnership aims to establish pilot projects promoting local capacity building. The agreement also covers the development of infrastructure for the testing and validation of smart electrical and autonomous vehicle technologies by both government and the private sector.

Also at Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week, Masdar showed a new prototype autonomous concept vehicle from Chinese manufacturer ICONIQ, the L5. As part of the collaboration, the L5 prototype will undergo extensive testing at Masdar City during 2018.

Masdar is also developing its own electrical vehicles, with projects including the Eco-Bus, a project developed by Masdar and Abu Dhabi-based Hafilat Industry in collaboration with the Masdar Institute, part of Khalifa University of Science and Technology. The 27-seater bus runs on an electric engine from Siemens, giving it a range of 150km on one charge.

“One of the things that we launched one year ago, as a prototype, was an Abu Dhabi-developed electric bus, called the Eco-Bus,” Severance explained. “It is meant for weather conditions here, so it has air conditioning systems that meet the requirements, water cooling system for the batteries, additional insulation and reflective material for the glass. You will see the same sort of things that we developed for the Eco-Bus being reflected in the next generation of transportation.”

Khalid Al Hashim, Executive Director for Surface Transport at Abu Dhabi Department of Transport, commented on the project during Sustainability Week: “We applaud the team behind this successful prototype and look forward to seeing the results of its performance tests. High temperatures throughout the year have been an obstacle to the wider use of electric vehicles in the Gulf, one the Eco-Bus promises to address. The Eco-Bus integrates with a number of sustainable mobility initiatives under way in Abu Dhabi and the UAE and complements the diversification goals of the UAE Vision 2021.”

FUELLING RESEARCH

The Eco-Bus is a good example of Masdar’s capacity for collaborative projects in sustainable energy. Severance said that Masdar as a commercial entity can work with partners in the private sector and in government, and also draw on R&D expertise from the engineering personnel and graduate students at Masdar Institute. One such agreement, which was announced last year, is joint research program with Toyota to explore the potential of hydrogen as a fuel source.

Announced in May 2017, the program includes Masdar, Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC), Air Liquide, and Toyota distributor Al-Futtaim Motors. The program partners will jointly research on key issues involving the establishment of a hydrogen-based society, including hydrogen production, logistics, scalability, and business feasibility.

Research is taking place at Masdar Institute, including developing test protocols for hydrogen, Severance said. As part of the program, Toyota will begin driving and refuelling demonstration tests of the Mirai fuel cell vehicle (FCV) in the UAE, with a hydrogen fuelling station built at Masdar, to test the performance of the systems under local conditions. Masdar and other organisations around Abu Dhabi will be testing a fleet of around 40 hydrogen-powered vehicles, which have the potential as an alternative or a companion to electric-powered vehicles.

Takeshi Uchiyamada, chairman of the Toyota Motor Corporation, said at the launch of the project: “The UAE has vast potential for the expansion of hydrogen production. The country has excess capacity at hydrogen production facilities located at oil refineries, and the ability to produce hydrogen as a byproduct at caustic soda and other factories, not to mention the production potential from mega solar power stations.

“As the government continues to promote new initiatives and pursues the creation of a hydrogen-based society, the UAE is able to emerge as the world leader of next-generation clean energies.”

Masdar is also working with faculty and students from the Institute on a project to develop biofuels for vehicles, Severance added: “Currently the waste-to-biofuel is good for a diesel generator, but it is not high enough quality to run a vehicle, so we are working with Masdar Institute to develop different additives and methodologies for conversion that would enable it to produce a fuel quality that is clean enough for vehicles.”

Masdar will continue to grow its transportation network, phase by phase, as Masdar City continues to build out, Severance said, and Masdar would welcome more organisations to work with it on future sustainable transport systems. Electric car company Tesla has located a bank of its car ‘super charger’ charging stations at Masdar City, and Masdar is ready for more collaboration, he added.

“We would be very interested and open to that, we have signed the MoU with Abu Dhabi to act as a test bed, and if someone like Uber wanted to come here and do testing, then Masdar City is the right place to do it.”

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