A Qatar-based company believes it’s found a way to help motorists avoid traffic congestion and drive more safely – all while showing that the country can develop its own high-tech solutions without being completely reliant on foreign firms.
Qatar Mobility and Innovations Center (QMIC) has attached hundreds of sensors to lampposts across the country to pick up the unique signals emitted by Bluetooth devices inside passing vehicles.
By tracking how long it takes for that device to travel between two sensors, as well as passively monitoring the movement of phones running its apps, QMIC’s platform powers Masarak iTraffic, an app that provides navigation and road congestion information in Qatar and has been downloaded more than 50,000 times.
It also has programs that prevents motorists from using their cell phones in moving vehicles and helps companies with large vehicle fleets route their cars and trucks more efficiently.
While the company is adding to its client list and signing deals with local entities such as Qatar Rail, CEO Dr. Adnan Abu-Dayya says one of his top goals is to make QMIC one of the first ventures in the country to turn local research and development into a commercially viable technology product that can be used at home and sold around the world.
“We’re trying to do something that the country aspires to, but has not been fully done yet,” he said.
Abu-Dayya is a Palestinian who worked for Nortel Networks in Ottawa in the ‘90s before heading to Seattle to spend a decade with AT&T Wireless.
When he moved to the Gulf in 2007 to head up Qatar University’s electrical engineering department, he noted the country’s efforts to diversify the economy away from oil and gas by creating knowledge-based companies in sectors such as high tech.
In 2009, he officially launched QMIC – which is jointly owned by QU, Qatar Foundation and the Qatar Science and Technology Park. The company’s focus was to develop technology that improves road safety, makes transportation networks more efficient and helps companies better manage their vehicle fleets.
That information can help motorists shave a few minutes off their commute, and on a wider scale also lead to major cost savings for companies operating large car or truck fleets.
For this reason, QMIC is marketing its Masarak platform to large enterprise customers, such as government departments and big corporations, an effort that culminated in a “huge” deal with Qatar Rail that was announced earlier this month.
While construction on the Doha Metro is just starting to get underway, Abu-Dayya says Qatar Rail and its contractors will eventually be shuttling upwards of a thousand trucks of building materials and waste to and from station and tunneling sites each day.
With those vehicles equipped with GPS devices, QMIC would help Qatar Rail manage its vehicle dispatching and routing by providing both technology and staff to help it operate its logistics center.
Abu-Dayya declined to disclose the value of the five-year contract, except to say it is “extremely valuable.”
Snagging the country’s rail office as a client and participating in one of Qatar’s large-scale development projects is a significant endorsement for QMIC, which is also aligning itself with another national priority: road safety.
The company has also developed an app called Salamtek (Arabic for “Your safety”) that effectively locks a cell phone when it detects that it is traveling above a certain speed. Anyone who calls or texts automatically receives a message that the person they are trying to contact is driving and will respond when it is safe to do so.
While it currently depends on motorists’ desire to change their behavior and has only been downloaded about 1,000 times, Abu-Dayya says he sees potential in marketing it to logistics or delivery companies that don’t want their drivers using the phone while they are behind the wheel.
He also envisions forming deeper marketing partnerships with government entities such as the Ministry of Interior to create rewards and incentives to motivate motorists to lock their phone while driving.
But the company’s ambitions to improve road safety using mobile devices go much further. Later this month, QMIC plans to demo another technological innovation dubbed the “connected vehicle.”
The vision is to have cars communicate with other cars and the road network itself to alert drivers when, for example, they are about to make an unsafe lane change, the speed limit is changing or there is a broken-down vehicle blocking a lane up ahead.
At the same time, QMIC is also upgrading its iTraffic app, adding voice alerts and features that competitors such as Google Maps would have trouble matching, such as a database of Qatar addresses and up-to-date information on local road closures and diversions.
“Nobody can compete with us on our home turf in terms of data, access to features and capabilities,” Abu-Dayya says. “We live here. We know when there is a problem (on the roads).”
QMIC has another advantage. Unlike many of its privately run peers, it is backed by the government in a country where the state plays a significant role in the economy, freeing it from some of the financial pressures faced by other firms.
At this time, Abu-Dayya says the company offers its mobile apps for free and has no immediate plans to try to monetize its consumer products. Instead, the company is following the business model of companies such as Facebook and Twitter by focusing on building a large community of users.
That would help improve the quality of the app, since more data would be fed into QMIC’s system, which in turn could attract additional users and make the platform more attractive to marketers if the company chooses to pursue advertising revenues.
QMIC does face other challenges, such as finding an adequate supply of talented tech workers that will allow it to scale up its operations and eventually start exporting to other countries in the region and beyond.
Even though it may at times act like a commercial entity, Abu-Dayya says profitability takes a backseat to helping local clients and the country as a whole.
“We will live and die with our success in Qatar, making sure we are relevant and supporting the needs of the country. But the value, over time, will come from utilizing our technology globally.”