Driverless Russia: Look – no hands!

27 March 2020

The Russian government has pledged to make the development of connected and autonomous vehicles (C/AVs) one of its priorities in the field of transport within the next few years.  

Former Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev and other senior state officials backed the move, unveiled last year, in which the government gave a green light for tests of unmanned cars on the congested roads of the country’s capital, Moscow.

Yandex, a Russian multinational corporation specialising in internet-related products and services had planned to put as many as 100 units onto the streets by the end of 2019 – most of which would be operated by Yandex itself.

The company is currently in a small pack of Russian firms which announced their intention to expand in this segment. Yandex began its programme in 2017 and has launched a public robo-taxi service in Israel, insisting that it is “getting ever closer” to realising its vision of true Level 5 AVs, which do not require any driver intervention.  

 

Self-driving platform

It has demonstrated its car without a driver on public roads during CES 2019 and CES 2020, the past two editions of the influential, international consumer electronics show in Las Vegas.

The company is working with Hyundai Mobis to develop software and hardware systems for self-driving cars, signing a memorandum of understanding last year with a stated aim of creating a self-driving platform that can be used by any car manufacturer or taxi fleet.

So far, similar commitment to AVs has been expressed by at least half a dozen companies operating in Russia, among which are the leading local truck maker Kamaz and iconic Soviet and Russian vehicle manufacturer Gaz Group, as well as some research institutions in this field.

Last year Gaz started the development of an unmanned version of its GAZelle light commercial vehicle, conducting tests on a special training ground. According to the company, various scenarios are being worked out and control systems are being tested to ensure the accurate operation of the car in difficult conditions. In an exclusive interview with ITS International, Gaz corporate affairs director Natalya Anisimova confirmed the ongoing tests. “The currently tested prototypes of unmanned cars are equipped with various environmental management and monitoring systems,” Anisimova explains. “These are the ‘classic’ Lidar systems, as well as systems which are built entirely on the serial automobile components of advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) such as radars, cameras and ultrasonic sensors.”

 

Unmanned tests

The autopilot systems use the latest developments, designed in the engineering centre of the Gaz Group in conjunction with its major research partner, the Nizhny Novgorod State Technical University. “These are algorithms for determining the boundaries of the carriageway in the absence of marking, a mathematical modelling system and optimisation of the trajectory, et cetera,” continues Anisimova. “All the prototypes are tested at the site of the enterprise and at the Skolkovo Technopark. The most important result of the conducted tests is that the elements of the autopilot system could be used for the assembly of traditional cars. These are mainly elements that provide the implementation of ADAS functions.”

Meanwhile, Kamaz has been carrying out tests of its unmanned truck and electric bus. In the case of the truck, the company said it will be capable of driving on specified routes without driver assistance and will be based on the firm’s KamAZ-5350 model. The new truck will have an artificial intelligence (AI) system, which will provide it with the capability to distinguish road markings, signs and other road users, including pedestrians.

The company also successfully completed tests of its 12-seater unmanned electric bus, known as  ShATL, which is built on the it c KamAZ-1221 platform.

In the meantime, the Russian government is aware of the current developments, planning to provide additional support to leading domestic companies working in this field. The plan is that this will be mainly through the development of a legislative framework for the industry to regulate the use and certification of unmanned cars in Russia.  

 

State strategy

Implementation of these plans will be part of the recently-approved state strategy for road safety in Russia, which is applicable until 2024 and regulates the current experiment for unmanned cars in the country.

So far, the government has already submitted a bill (titled ‘On experimental operation of innovative vehicles’) to the State Duma (Russia’s parliament) that will be positioned as the legislative basis for the industry going forward.

According to Sergei Zhigarev, chairman of the Duma’s Committee of Economic Policy and one of the main authors of the bill, it will create a much-needed legal framework for the use of unmanned cars on Russian territory. Under its terms, a special federal executive body will be established to implement the legal regulation of the industry. At the same time, the bill will also establish the procedure for issuing permits for the tests of such cars on Russian highways and outline the requirements for the minimum insurance which should be paid out in the case of road accidents which involve AVs.

Zhigarev told ITS International that the Russian market for unmanned cars has a big potential for growth, which is expected to be achieved in the short term. “Most likely at the initial stage these unmanned cars will be used for freight transportation, while later they could be applied to passenger services,” he suggests. “We expect the demand for such cars in Russia will grow in years to come, while in order to remain competitive in this area, a clear industry law should be adopted.”

Steps are already underway to do so. Zhigarev adds that the government also plans to create the necessary infrastructure for this nascent industry, particularly in relation to special ‘smart’ roads which have good surfaces, among other features. Particular attention will be paid to improving driver behaviour in Russia, with a view to explaining the benefits of acting within the law while driving. This is a very real problem: a recent survey of global cities found that the Russian city of St. Petersburg had one of the highest rates of road fatalities on earth, while Moscow was more or less the world’s road rage capital.

 

Raising awareness

There is also a need to raise awareness about the possibilities of unmanned cars. The latter measure is considered as very important by the state, on the basis that the concept of AVs is still generally uncommon – or even unknown – for the majority of Russian citizens.

Medvedev, who is now head of the country’s Security Council, had expressed a wish for the development of the AV industry’s legislative base to be put in place swiftly. From its side, the government was also keen to ease the procedure of certification for these cars. In the meantime, most of the observers operating in this field have already welcomed the latest state plans, considering the prospects for the development of unmanned cars in Russia as very promising.

Igor Morgaretto, one of the country’s automotive experts and a senior partner at analyst Avtostat, believes the biggest benefits could be found in using such vehicles for freight transport. He adds that such trucks are already being developed by some global automakers, including Volvo and Tesla.

According to Tigran Khudoverdyan, CEO of Yandex.Taxi – Yandex subsidiary and a leading developer of self-driving technologies – there are only three other companies in the world which have achieved major progress in the AV sector:  Google, Uber and Cruise. Of course, he also adds Yandex to the list.

“Our company was able to design its own technology of unmanned cars and believe it could be also competitive in the international arena, along with the developments of major Western rivals,” Khudoverdyan insists.

As part of the ongoing experiment, the 100 or so vehicles in its unmanned fleet are likely to be used as taxis in these early stages. But Yandex believes that, going forward, the scope of their application “will be significantly expanded”.

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