Omaimah Bamasag (TGA) on Saudi's autonomous vehicles drive

15 March 2023 10 min. read

Saudi Arabia aims to have 15% of its public transport vehicles as autonomous by 2030, according to Omaimah Bamasag, Deputy of Transport Enablement at the Transport General Authority. In discussion with Arthur D Little, Omaimah Bamasag outlines the potential the government sees in the technology, the roadmap for bringing the ambitions to life, and some of the pitfalls on the road.

What outlook do you foresee for autonomous mobility in the future?

There is no doubt that autonomous vehicle (AV) technologies are progressing and growing significantly, especially in recent years with the development of computer capabilities and the emergence of the artificial intelligence revolution, the concept of big data, and 5G.

It is well known that the ultimate global goal in autonomous vehicle is to bring them to full autonomy (Level 5, according to the Society of Automotive Engineers International) in a commercial form, and it seems to me that we have a tricky road ahead to reach that level, especially in light of the challenges related to the security and privacy of data and risk of cybersecurity attacks.

Omaimah Bamasag, Deputy of Transport Enablement

Therefore, I expect that in the coming years we will see an increase in spending on R&D and technology advancement by OEMs, start-ups, and tech giants for the development of autonomous vehicles.

We will also notice high developments in the areas of V2X, especially between vehicles and means of micromobility, to reduce the rate of accidents in this regard, besides the development of new business models for insurance companies to accelerate the commercial operation. This will definitely lead us to see more licensing of AVs around the world and their commercial operation on public streets.

I also expect to see AVs commercially soon in the applications of shared mobility by buses and taxis, and perhaps trucks and robots, due to the controllability of their applications and scope, as they often have predetermined origins, destinations, and paths. Besides that, there are many global efforts ongoing to define their technical and operational requirements.

And with the emergence of the concept of mobility as a service (MaaS) and the proof of its effectiveness, it is expected that there will be a greater trend toward the concept of autonomous MaaS based on autonomous vehicles to serve the first and last mile, and pilots have begun in some countries around the world.

In the end, I may agree with the global forecast that commercial operation of AVs at SAE Level 4 and Level 5 will become a reality around 2038.

What is KSA’s vision toward autonomous mobility?

The Kingdom’s goals for AV transport are very ambitious and can be seen from the giant projects based on autonomy, such as the Neom and Red Sea projects in the economic zone. These smart cities are designed to be sustainable through the introduction of new transport systems for passengers and goods based entirely on autonomous mobility, such as volocopters, autonomous pods, robotaxis, and so on.

On the other hand, there are several mega projects in a number of cities in the Kingdom aimed at catering autonomous vehicles to passengers, such as the King Salman Park project in Riyadh and the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Thuwal.

Looking at the National Transport and Logistics Strategy (NTLS), we find it was supportive of adopting new mobility systems for the transport of people and logistics sectors. This was reinforced by the sectoral strategy for land transport by TGA, with targets that aspire to convert approximately 15% of public transport vehicles into AVs and 25% of goods transport vehicles into AVs by 2030.

What role would TGA play in achieving KSA’s vision?

The regulatory position of TGA on the passenger and goods transport sectors in the Kingdom makes its role essential in achieving the Kingdom’s vision.

TGA is working on two tracks. The first revolves around promoting and adopting new modes and means of transportation through piloting and testing, R&D, and establishing relationships with governmental and private entities, universities, and research bodies to reach recommendations that formulate the necessary regulations and legislation for these technologies.

In the second track, TGA prepares economic, social, and environmental feasibility studies through which it determines the stages of imposing certain regulations on operators and providers of public transport services and goods transport through which the goals of the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 are achieved.

In short, imposing regulations by TGA is very easy, but the most important thing is to verify the adverse effects that may result from imposing such regulations because some effects may deviate from the Kingdom’s desired vision.

Are there any other stakeholders involved? How do you coordinate with each other?

With the nature of AV technologies, interagency collaboration is critical to achieving rapid maturity and development. TGA is very keen to work with all concerned governmental, private, local, and international bodies, or even research bodies, each according to its specialization.

On the governmental level, we are aligned with the Ministry of Transport and Logistic Services on AV projects, and with the Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs and Housing, including the municipalities and royal and development authorities of the regions, for their competence in infrastructure and city intelligence.

We are also working with the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology and the Saudi Authority for Data and Artificial Intelligence to improve the readiness of the necessary communications infrastructure for these technologies, such as 5G, data privacy, and security.

Meanwhile, we seek to discuss with some enforcement bodies, like the General Traffic Department and Public Security, about the improvement of traffic control units, smart usage of surveillance cameras, and fine approaches, etc.

As for research bodies, cooperation is based on exchanging data obtained from tests for research purposes, localizing some operational tasks of autonomous mobility, and opening new horizons in development and innovation.

Cooperation also extends to raising community awareness through holding local seminars, hosting international conferences specialized in autonomous mobility, and organizing competitions and hackathons.

What is the status of autonomous vehicles regulations in Saudi Arabia?

The Kingdom is still in the early stages of regulating autonomous vehicles, but this does not mean that we are not interested; on the contrary, it is the first concern and target of all parties of the transport ecosystem.

At all levels, the authorities are working very hard to regulate and legislate AV in the Kingdom through piloting different technologies, conducting studies, and meeting with the competent local and global authorities in the field to determine their technical, operational, and legislative requirements.

Saudi Arabia’s desire to build one of the largest sandboxes for new mobility may be strong support for advancing the growth of AVs in the Kingdom and is a great accelerator for the development of its regulations and legislation.

It is worth noting that the Saudi Central Bank (SAMA) recently announced its approval of a new insurance product, the first of its kind designed to provide coverage for AVs and related risks. The bank indicated that the product provides insurance coverage for AVs that can drive themselves from a start point to a pre-set destination in “autopilot” mode using various in-vehicle technologies and sensors.

These include adaptive control, active steering, anti-lock braking systems, GPS navigation technology, lasers, and radar. Coverage is only valid for vehicles that are driven and operated in licensed areas and areas designated for autonomous vehicles.

Are you collaborating with international authorities for regulatory standardization?

Unfortunately, TGA does not have any collaboration thus far with international bodies to standardize the regulation, but we will definitely do so soon. In fact, it is an important step to unify and integrate efforts and advance the development toward the commercial operation of autonomous vehicles.

What roadblocks do you foresee for autonomous vehicle market ramp-up in Saudi Arabia?

In terms of roadblocks, there are many, and perhaps the most important of them is the readiness of the infrastructure for autonomous vehicles, particularly if the aim is to achieve commercial operation at SAE Level 4 and Level 5. What I mean by readiness here is the readiness of technologies and other necessary requirements in the infrastructure for achieving safe operation and protection of privacy and data.

Also, one of the important roadblocks, assuming that the infrastructure in the Kingdom is ready, is the delay in formulating the necessary regulations for these vehicles. Public acceptance may be another roadblock to increasing AVs in the Kingdom, especially if privacy and security issues are not well addressed.

How are you looking to tackle these roadblocks?

It is important to note that addressing roadblocks should be participatory work between all stakeholders.

We are working with many ministries and agencies, like the Ministry of Transport and Logistic Services; the Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs and Housing; the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology; the Saudi Data and Artificial Intelligence Authority; the National Cybersecurity Authority; the royal and development authorities of regions; municipalities; and some other local and international private sectors to improve the readiness of the infrastructure in the Kingdom and formulate the necessary regulations for AVs.

We work also with many research bodies, universities, and organizations to set up programs and competitions and develop educational curricula that contribute to raising community awareness and educating the community about what is new in technology

Most autonomous vehicle players foresee large-scale commercialization of the service by 2024. Do you believe this target is achievable?

Yes, it is achievable, but only to a certain extent. Levels 4 and 5 of personal autonomous vehicles may require more study and research to be commercially ready. But if we look around the world, we see that there are other AV technologies that are currently operating in a kind of commercial manner, like the autonomous pod, e-commerce robot, and all other technologies built similarly on the concept of shared mobility.

These are what I expect to be commercially operational by 2024 because many organizations and governments have made extensive efforts to develop their requirements and legislation. It is important to note that the readiness of the infrastructure and regulation play an important role in achieving the commercialization of autonomous vehicles.

Going forward, what will be the next steps for TGA to ensure effective collaboration with the private sector on autonomous vehicles?

The private sector is one of the most important arms in the development and growth of autonomous vehicles. They possess technical and operational knowledge and have global experiences by the nature of their presence in several countries around the world, and their role with TGA comes through transferring their global knowledge.

What I see in our collaboration is that they can strengthen TGA in establishing proof-of-concept piloting and support TGA in drafting the necessary regulation for technologies. Meanwhile, the role of TGA is to create investment opportunities for them and pave the way for new horizons in the local market for AVs. This is what the Public Authority for Investment and Competitiveness at TGA is targeting.