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A NEXT module

NEXT Future Transportation Inc / Facebook

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 Future Transportation Inc / Facebook

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?

Qatar limo companies working illegally with Uber, Careem put on notice

Qatar’s Ministry of Transport and Communications has given taxi and limousine companies that use online apps to find passengers 30 days to properly register with the government or risk legal action, according to a public notice.

It’s not clear if the ministry is targeting Uber and Careem – both of which are named in the notice – themselves, or the local limo and taxi companies that supply it with cars and drivers. It’s the latest local blow to Uber, which is still engaged in a labor dispute with drivers in Qatar. When contacted by Doha News, Uber declined comment and Careem said it’s “working closely with relevant authorities.”

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

Joakim Formo/Flickr

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

More competition is coming to Doha’s taxi and limousine industry as a US-based company, which lets customers book luxury vehicles via their smartphone, rolls out its operations in Qatar.

Uber, which quietly began operating here in mid-December, held an official launch for its Qatar service last night.

It joins UAE-based Careem, which started offering a similar service last summer, in offering an alternative to Doha’s established taxi and limousine firms.

Speaking to Doha News, Jambu Palaniappan, Uber’s head of EMEA expansion, said:

“This city is on a growth curve that is probably unmatched anywhere in the world. As that growth happens, we want to play a role in supporting it from a lifestyle and logistics perspective.”

Uber and Careem customers create online accounts by providing a credit card number and can either download a mobile app or visit the firm’s website using a smartphone. (Careem also allows clients to book using a computer.)

Using the GPS co-ordinates of the client’s phone – as well as those inside nearby vehicles – Uber dispatches drivers to the customer’s location and provides an estimate of how long it will take the car to arrive.

At the moment, Uber and Careem’s fares are comparable – although Uber officials said their fares, which include a base rate plus additional charges for each minute and kilometer – are likely to rise by roughly 20 percent once its promotional period passes. Uber’s fare calculator shows a ride from City Center Mall to the Souq Waqif would cost between QR25 and QR32. The same trip would cost QR30 using Careem, according to its website.

Careem currently serves four cities – Abu Dhabi, Doha, Dubai and Riyadh – while Uber is available in 65 cities around the world.

Business model

Neither business actually owns cars or directly employs drivers, and instead contracts with existing limousine service providers.

An Uber official said he considered his company to be a technology firm specializing in connecting drivers with passengers and processing payments.

Uber, which was founded in San Francisco in 2009 and is said to have received a US$250-million (QR910.4 million) investment from Google Ventures, has set up branches in several cities in the US and India, among other locales. It launched operations in Dubai last August and Abu Dhabi in November, before coming to Qatar.

Palaniappan declined to provide ridership or revenue projections, but did say that the company has at its disposal “several hundred” cars – Audi A6s, E- and S-class Mercedes as well as 500-series BMWs – and “thousands” of Qatar customers who have already registered.

“The response has been really strong. It is really clear that this product fits well with the needs of Doha.”

Indeed, residents have been tweeting positively about the service.

 

 

Competition

In the US, the rapidly growing company has gained a reputation for strong-armed sales strategies and was this month forced to apologize after its New York employees were caught reserving, and then canceling, more than a hundred cars at a rival service.

Palaniappan said the New York incident was an example of a regional team being “overzealous,” adding that here, the company plans to compete on the strength of its technology and service.

“We’re happy to put that up against anyone else who plays in the space.”

While some may see Uber as a threat to Careem as well as Qatar’s established taxi and limo companies, Palaniappan said he doesn’t foresee his firm stealing market share from other businesses. Qatar is simply growing too fast, adding more residents who need to get around, he said.

If anything, Palaniappan forecasts that some customers may start to use Uber’s services instead of their personal vehicles for certain trips.

For its part, Careem said the competition may actually boost its business. Company cofounder Mudassir Sheikha said that his bookings rose after Uber launched in Dubai and created more awareness of the service.

“We welcome the competition and think it will help make us stronger,” he told Doha News.

After starting its service with mid-level sedans such as Honda Accords, Toyota Camrys and Nissan Altimas, Careem has added a “business class fleet” that includes 500-series BMWs. Sheikha said business in Doha is “going along quite nicely,” supported primarily by corporate customers.

 

He added that the traditional difficulties in finding a taxi in Doha means that many residents who can afford Careem’s service already own a car or use a regular driver. Thus, many clients have been pre-scheduling pickups – something Uber currently doesn’t offer – for trips to the airport, restaurants and other destinations.

Drivers

Given that both Careem and Uber rely on other firms to supply vehicles and drivers, some industry observers have painted the competition as a “land grab,” as both companies race to sign agreements with existing limousine companies – something that may discourage more firms to enter the market.

However, Sheikha said he doesn’t require his partners to sign exclusivity clauses, which would be difficult to enforce anyways, he said. Instead, Careem aims to attract drivers by offering training as well as call center support for navigation or communication issues.

He said he didn’t have compensation figures for Doha immediately available, but that a Dubai driver could make AED4,000-17,000 (QR3,966-16,855) a month. Doha’s smaller size means a local driver may make 20 to 30 percent less than their Dubai counterparts, Sheikha said, adding that Careem customers only represent a portion of a driver’s daily fares.

Uber officials were unavailable to answer follow-up questions about compensation.

However, one driver told Doha News that his company – one of several that Uber engages – pays him QR3,000 a month and does not provide food or accommodation allowances. He said he works 12-hour shifts, six days a week, and does not receive overtime pay.

“In Qatar, they’re not thinking about the drivers,” he said, echoing concerns recently expressed by Al Million taxi drivers.

“Qatar does not think about the lower or middle class. Only the upper class.”

Have you tried Uber? Thoughts?