Dream Jobs 2011: Abu Dhabi's Prince of Podcars

Jaap Duiser is the engineer behind 2getthere's personal rapid transit system in Masdar, the Middle East's budding eco-city

Photo: Martin Von Den Driesch

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JAAP DUISER

AGE 59

WHAT HE DOES
Builds personal rapid transit systems.

FOR WHOM
2getthere

where he doeS It
United Arab Emirates and other international locales

FUN FACTORS
He gets to custom-build futuristic transit systems around the world.

This profile is part of IEEE Spectrum's Special Report on Dream Jobs 2011.

It’s dawn on a humid, 35 °C day in the United Arab Emirates, and Jaap Duiser is guiding his gas-guzzling Toyota SUV through the country’s hypercharged freeway traffic. His destination? One of the world’s most ambitious environmental projects: Masdar City, a multibillion-dollar carbon-neutral oasis being built on a patch of desert outside Abu Dhabi city.

For nearly a year, the Dutchman has been making this 130-kilometer journey between Dubai and Masdar six days a week. But he would love to see such commutes eventually become a thing of the past. Since 1995, he has been working toward a world without drivers. He installs personal rapid-transit systems for 2getthere, a small Dutch company that designs magnetically guided ”podcar” systems. For Masdar, 2getthere has custom-built a fleet of these automated electric cars. The eco-city is expected to pioneer new modes of energy and water use in the UAE—which is one of the biggest per capita energy consumers on the planet—and the transit system is an important showpiece.

As the project’s chief service engineer, Duiser troubleshoots the cars’ electrical, mechanical, air-conditioning, and wireless networking systems. With mere weeks left before he must hand over control of the transit system to its operators, he takes a break only when the local authorities want to show it off to visiting sheikhs or delegations from China and Europe.

On a recent October morning, Duiser is testing a 1-minute-long route from a parking lot at the city’s entrance to a research institute. The future of the project may depend on how well this part of the system performs, so he’s vigilant. He jumps into one of the cream-colored sedans, which are roomy enough for four but surprisingly sleek—they were designed by Zagato, an Italian company known for its aerodynamic vehicles for Maserati and Ferrari.

Raja’an intibih al baab,” a canned female voice entreats in Arabic and then in English: ”Please mind the doors.” The doors slide shut, and the car whirs smoothly over its concrete path. Near the end of the journey, the voice comes on again. ”Please take your seat and press the green door button to start your trip.” Duiser cracks a smile: The car has misread its location. ”There’s a glitch!” he says. ”It doesn’t matter—we’ll get it fixed.”

To do that, Duiser will dig into the control system. The operating principle is simple: By counting the wheels’ revolutions and measuring the steering angle, the car’s controller can track its position on a map. To correct for uneven wear on the wheels or a strong gust of wind, the car corroborates its location by sensing magnets buried along the route that act as checkpoints. And when a car notices that its lithium-ion battery pack is running low, it helpfully takes itself out of rotation and finds its way to the nearest available charging station.

Duiser works with a crew of six to add the finishing touches. ”It feels like we are just a group of people doing our hobby,” he says.

Duiser was 13 years old when he began building model train sets that ran throughout his family’s house in Utrecht, in the Netherlands. But it wasn’t until he reached the Royal Netherlands Army as an 18-year-old that he identified his two passions: engineering and carambole, a version of billiards played with three balls and no pockets. After his service, Duiser worked for a company that built machines to make springs, augmenting his engineering skills by attending night courses.

After a series of odd jobs, he landed at Frog AGV Systems, a company based in Utrecht that makes driverless industrial carriers for shuttling pallets in factories and transporting shipping containers around the Port of Rotterdam. Duiser’s first two projects involved driverless buses that also used magnets and the odometry system of counting wheel revolutions. One bus carried passengers around Amsterdam’s airport, Schiphol, while another drove around an office park in South Holland. In 2007, Frog—which stands for free roaming on grid—spun off 2getthere to focus on automated vehicles for passengers, and Duiser joined the new venture.

Now an expert on driverless systems, Duiser says he has come to expect that each system will have its quirks. For example, he was once sent to Tokyo Disneyland to investigate some willful automotive honeypots that 2getthere had designed for a Winnie-the-Pooh ride. As Tigger danced in a field of butterflies, the honeypots inexplicably came to a stop, apparently detecting magnets where none existed. Duiser discovered that the phantom readings were coming from irregularities in Earth’s magnetic field. So he updated the honeypots’ control software by adding those points to the encoded map the cars rely on, and soon the ride was back to normal.

At Masdar, Duiser and his crew oversee 13 podcars. The system, which went into full operation on 28 November, is just a fraction of what 2getthere could potentially install there. The city’s first phase, due to open in 2015, calls for 1 million square meters of development. But working on the frontiers of technology in a tough economic climate has its risks. In October, city officials announced a reduced budget and suggested that 2getthere’s vehicles might be limited to their current single route.

Duiser expects to stay in the Middle East for another year, but the changes at Masdar have him wondering where his next project might take him. Nonetheless, he relishes being in what he sees as the vanguard of transportation. ”It is the future,” he says. ”If we don’t do it here, we’ll do it somewhere else.”

An abridged version of this article originally appeared in print as "Prince of Podcars".

About the Author

Richard Deckert is a freelance contributor to IEEE Spectrum.

To Probe Further

For more articles and special features, go to Dream Jobs 2011.

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