THUWAL: A Saudi university is helping lead the global drive toward autonomous vehicles with the launch on Wednesday of the Kingdom’s first self-driving buses.
Two driverless shuttles, nicknamed Olli and EZ10, will undergo trials on the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) campus with a view to starting regular commuter services for students and staff early next year.
The transport initiative is the result of a collaboration project between KAUST, digital vehicle manufacturer LM (Local Motors) Industries, driverless technologies firm EasyMile, and the Saudi Public Transport Co. (SAPTCO).
The shuttles were launched during a special ceremony at the Thuwal university site.
KAUST’s head of digital experience and innovation, Mohamed Abdel-Aal, told Arab News: “They’re electric, running on battery, not petrol. They are connected to the internet and communicate with a central command center, and are autonomous, self-driving.”
Olli and EZ10 use camera and censor technology to sense and feel their surroundings.
“One of the buses, Local Motors’ shuttle Olli, is actually 3D printed — the body, and a lot of its components. These shuttles can be produced very quickly because they do not require complex manufacturing,” said Abdel-Aal.
He added that KAUST was currently involved in discussions on how the Kingdom could benefit from advances in driverless vehicles.
Saudi bus firm SAPTCO is supporting the project as a certified operator of the autonomous shuttles, should it be required.
“For KAUST, as a university, this launch allows us to test, co-develop and co-design concepts in these shuttles, acting as a living lab. KAUST can test and examine these shuttles in a controlled environment, and whatever we learn can also scale outside to bigger cities and the region,” Abdel-Aal added.
During the launch event, Sulaiman Al-Thunayan, vice president for government affairs at KAUST, thanked governmental sectors, such as Saudi Customs and King Abdul Aziz International Airport, for helping to give the official green light for the operation of the smart shuttles at relatively short notice.
“KAUST has always ensured it leaves an imprint on the realization of Vision 2030, and this is one initiative that showcases that,” he added.
KAUST Chief Information Officer Jason Roos said the idea to find smart solutions came about six months ago, and had given birth to other initiatives and platforms whether from “drones, autonomous vehicles, to digital immersive experiences when it comes to security.”
Projects such as KAUST Smart helped to break down barriers between organizations and departments and ensured that “things happen at KAUST that cannot be done anywhere else in the world,” added Roos.
“This isn’t about a bus, this is about a new industry, autonomous vehicles and the incredible things of a technology that KAUST is going to be part of developing,” said Kevin Cullen, the university’s vice president of innovation and economic development.
The center is responsible for putting the research conducted at KAUST to use for the community, he added.
KAUST President Tony Chan said the launch had taken place at an opportune moment, as the university was celebrating its 10-year anniversary in September.
The shuttle buses will be taken on test drives and if all goes well are set to start running services for KAUST students and employees in January.