Flying cars ‘set to launch in Dubai this summer’

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EHang 184 model aerial vehicle is at World Government Summit 2017 in Dubai. (AFP)
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Mattar Al-Tayer, director general of the Roads and Transport Authority (RTA), speaks at the World Government Summit in Dubai.
Updated 15 February 2017
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Flying cars ‘set to launch in Dubai this summer’

DUBAI: Flying cars have long been the stuff of an imagined sci-fi future — but the technology is real and is set for launch in Dubai as early as July, it emerged on Monday. The city’s transport boss, speaking at the World Government Summit (WGS), played a video showing an autonomous aerial vehicle zooming through the skies above Dubai, saying that tests of the flying cars are ongoing. Mattar Al-Tayer, director general of the Roads and Transport Authority (RTA), said that Dubai aims to be a leader in driverless technology by 2030. The RTA is currently testing an autonomous aerial vehicle (AAV) in cooperation with the Ehang Company of China, he said. “The AAV on display at the World Government Summit is not just a model but it has really flown in Dubai skies. RTA will spare no effort to launch the AAV in July 2017,” Al-Tayer said. The “flying car” resembles a giant drone, with eight propellers, and was seen in the video carrying one passenger. It can carry a weight of 100kg and cargo the size of a small suitcase. Al-Tayer said driverless vehicles, minibuses and boats are being trialled in Dubai; the second phase of the Dubai Tram will have fully driverless trams; and a study has been commissioned on the deployment of driverless express shuttle buses and taxis. “Autonomous mobility… technology has been tested in several countries including Dubai, Singapore, the United States and Britain. The Government of Dubai is leading the transition to driverless mobility in Dubai and is planning to take a leading position worldwide in autonomous mobility by 2030, whereas in other cities and countries, it is the private sector that leads the process,” Al-Tayer said. “Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, vice president and prime minister of the UAE and ruler of Dubai, has launched the Dubai Smart Autonomous Mobility Strategy where 25 percent of all journeys in Dubai would be transformed into driverless journeys by 2030. We anticipate that the percentage of journeys that would be made by the driverless Dubai Metro to reach 12.2% by 2030 compared with 8.8% in 2016. We anticipate that the percentage of journeys made by autonomous buses to reach 6.4% by 2030.” Al-Tayer told the World Government Summit that Dubai has carved out a “nifty niche” for itself in the development of driverless technology. “Dubai has also started the test run of driverless minibuses, vehicles and boats, besides considering the options of deploying driverless express shuttle buses, and taxicabs from some leading companies,” he said. Al-Tayer pointed however to four key challenges facing the autonomous vehicle technology: infrastructure — including map updates, road markings and traffic lights — laws and legislation, safety and public acceptance of driverless vehicles, and technological requirements. Besides these global challenges, there are other challenges facing Dubai including harsh weather conditions and the corresponding impact on driverless transportation technological systems, and the social makeup of Dubai, which may increase people’s reluctance to embrace modern technology, Al-Tayer said. “To cope with these challenges, we have prepared Dubai Smart Autonomous Mobility Strategy which, compared to other global strategies, is characterized by the leading role of the Government of Dubai in the transition to driverless mobility, while in other cities and countries, it is the private sector that leads the process. Moreover, Dubai’s vision incorporates all mass transit modes such as trains, buses, marine transit modes and taxis, as well as private vehicles, while many countries focus on a limited number of transit modes.” Al-Tayer was upbeat about the promising future of this technology. “The journey on an autonomous vehicle will soon be like boarding a lift. All of us trust the closed box that lifts us to different levels as we know it is secure, ready and tested. This is what the RTA is seeking to achieve through autonomous mobility strategy and associated initiatives,” he said.


INTERVIEW: Dan Balmer on steering Aston Martin beyond Bond in the Middle East

Dan Balmer
Updated 17 November 2018
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INTERVIEW: Dan Balmer on steering Aston Martin beyond Bond in the Middle East

  • The Middle East will be a key market for the iconic UK car maker’s second century, says regional chief Dan Balmer
  • Aston has been around for more than 100 years, but has embarked on an ambitious “second-century strategy” under group CEO Andy Palmer

The name is Balmer. Dan Balmer.

The new president of Middle East business for Aston Martin Lagonda, the iconic British car maker beloved by James Bond, is grateful for the glamorous legacy of the fictional super-spy, but also conscious of the need to move on.

“We’ve been with Bond for 50 years, and he has been a real asset for us. But we have a team internally called ‘Beyond Bond.’ If we want to grow the brand audience, into the family and female markets, we have to look beyond the cars that Bond drives,” said Balmer.

That move away from some aspects of Aston’s heritage is reflected across the whole company. Aston has been around for more than 100 years, but has embarked on an ambitious “second-century strategy” under group CEO Andy Palmer.

The company that is emerging will be different, a luxury brand rather than a mere maker of fast boys’ toys; it will be increasingly global, with the Middle East playing a central role; and it will — hopefully — be sustainable, in both a financial and environmental sense.

British actor Roger Moore stands beside an Aston Martin car during a 'James Bond photocall' at Bletchley Park in Milton Keynes, on October 17, 2008. (AFP)

Palmer’s strategy is to steer the group away from the boom-and-bust cycle — it went bankrupt seven times in its first century. He pulled off an essential part of that strategy with an initial public offering (IPO) on the London Stock Exchange last month, which valued the company at $5.6 billion.

Aston will continue to make fast cars, but they will increasingly be more fuel efficient and even electric; and it will put its name to other luxury merchandise — plans for apartments and speed boats are well advanced. Next on the luxury list of Aston-branded items are submarines and vertical take-off aircraft.

Bond, with his love of both the high life and high-tech gadgetry, would probably approve of the strategy. “We’re not hawking the brand around — you won’t see us doing aftershaves and umbrellas. But customers want to buy our cars because they want to buy into beauty, and we’re stretching that now into other areas,” Balmer said.

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BIO: 

BORN 

1976 Southampton, UK.

EDUCATION

Design technician apprentice, Rover Group.


CAREER

•BMW design engineer.

•Rolls-Royce Motor Cars, general manager in Asia-Pacific. 

•Aston Martin Lagonda, president for the UK and
South Africa.

•Aston Martin Lagonda, president for the Middle East, North Africa and Turkey.

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He knows a thing or two about luxury marketing and car design, having previously worked for Rolls-Royce in Asia, based out of Singapore. But now the challenge is to extend the Aston business in the Middle East in a new division within the global set up — covering the Middle East, North Africa and Turkey (MENAT).

Reflecting Aston’s traditional regional business hub in the region, he will be based in the UAE, but the headquarters has been moved from Dubai to Abu Dhabi, where the MENAT HQ was officially inaugurated last week.

Balmer feels that Dubai’s reputation for flash glamor is “a thing of the past,” but also believes that the UAE capital is more in tune with the Aston image. “Aston has an understated elegance and that is also how we feel about Abu Dhabi. It is the capital, recognized as the center of the financial scene, the big decisions are made here, and with Yas Island (the venue for the big Formula 1 Grand Prix later this month) it is a great location for motor sports.”

The Aston Martin DB10, built exclusively for the James Bond film "Spectre," is displayed at the 2015 Los Angeles Auto Show in Los Angeles, California, November 19, 2015. (AFP)

Track racing is still a big thing for Aston, not least because many of its cars are too fast to be driven flat out on roads, but also because it helps the company maintain its high-speed image against competitors such as Ferrari and Lamborghini, the UAE’s sports cars of choice.

Under the second-century strategy, Aston can offer the DB11, the DBS (“a boot in a suit” says Balmer), the Vantage and the Valkyrie as its “overtly aggressive” cars to rival the Italians, and will also soon begin to produce a range of mid-engined cars to take on the likes of Porsche and Mercedes.

Saudi Arabia is big on collectors’ cars, like our Vulcan. But we need to grow the brand.

 

“We are breaking out of our conservative shell. These are track-based products, but meant to be driven on the road, true sports cars,” Balmer said.

But the really radical product is yet to come, and will figure prominently on Middle East roads when it arrives, some time in 2020. Aston has hitherto held off entering the SUV market, which is the fastest-growing sector in the world’s biggest markets, like the US and China.

The DBX is a luxury SUV, a bit bigger than most on the roads now, with five doors and elegant lines. It is aimed at the upmarket family market, and seems a natural fit for the Middle East, which has been SUV-crazy for decades. 

Balmer thinks it will become Aston’s biggest seller in the region. “We just have not had the offering in that segment before, but in the Middle East a majority of luxury car buyers would be SUV, with sports cars a weekend plaything,” he said.

In this file photo, an Aston Martin DB5 is displayed as part of an exhibition dedicated to James Bond at the main hall of La Vilette in Paris. (AFP)

He is relishing the prospect of unleashing the DBX on Saudi Arabia. Aston has been in the Kingdom a long time, with a long-standing partner the Hajji Husein Alireza group and showrooms in Jeddah and (more recently) Riyadh, to be followed by an outlet in Alkhobar.

But Saudi Arabia has not lived up to the potential of its big wealthy population. It ranks behind the UAE, Kuwait and Qatar, roughly alongside Turkey in Aston’s regional sales rankings.

“Saudi Arabia has more opportunity for us. Because of the sheer weight of wealthy individuals it means there are more people who will buy our cars there. Saudi Arabia is big on collectors’ cars, like our Vulcan, and the other beautiful cars we produce like Vanquish and DBS. But we need to grow the brand,” Balmer said.

 

 

“We need to do an education job in Saudi Arabia, both in terms of what Aston stands for in the market and the new products as well. I think Saudis will go for the idea of DBX, and that’s where the key focus will be for us.”

He believes the Saudi market is perhaps more conservative than the UAE in terms of colors and models, but there is potentially a far bigger market among Saudi nationals than Emiratis.

Saudis buy Rolls-Royce cars in big numbers, and having worked for the leader in motoring luxury Balmer appreciates the difference between marketing Rolls and Aston. “They differ in the customer type. Aston buyers tend to be really into their cars. They are ‘petrol heads’ but also discerning.

“Rolls customers know their cars too, and might have an Aston in the garage as well, but they’re buying a Rolls-Royce as more a statement purpose — for business use, or a reward in life. An Aston is more a purchase of emotion and desire,” he said. Whether as a reward or out of emotion, buying an Aston is a considerable outlay. The average price ticket is around $175,000, and such an impulse purchase could easily be put off if personal economic circumstances took a downturn.

In the Middle East, where economies are tied to the oil price, that makes Aston subject to the vagaries of the global crude market. “What’s happening in the region is that governments are diversifying away from oil. (Saudi Arabia’s reform program) Vision 2030, for example, is a big change and good news for us. It will eventually take the volatility away from the macro economic environment. But we will always be dependent to some degree on global economic forces. China now drives the rest of the world in many respects,” Balmer said.

The IPO was an opportunity for Aston’s long-term backers — financial institutions from Italy and Kuwait — to realize some profits on their investments. The share sale raised no new money for expensive research and development, which some analysts criticized.

“There was no massive cash injection because all our new projects were already invested. And we’re making profits. But the IPO secures the long-term future of the company,” Balmer said.

In difficult global markets, the shares have been trading below the issue price since day one, but recently two big investment institutions — Merrill Lynch and Goldman Sachs — put them on the “buy” list. If they achieve sufficient value to be included in the main FTSE 100 list, Aston will be the first car company for 30 years to be on the UK’s main trading board.

That would be something of a triumph for Palmer and the second-century strategy, but Aston has another finishing line in sight before that: The Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. “We’ve got a number of things planned around the race, not least winning it,” Balmer said.