With a proposed $4 billion boost and new regulations facilitating the introduction of driverless cars, the U.S. may be leading the headlines in the race to get fully autonomous transport on the road. But Russian projects are well underway, and last month, Rusnano corporation head Anatoly Chubais said driverless cars could appear on Russia’s roads in the next 10 years.

A driverless van being tested by KB Avrora, a resident company of the Skolkovo Foundation. Photo: Sk.ru.

This bold statement divided industry experts, who, though they agree that the technology is almost there, gave varying estimates as to when fully driverless cars might become reality in Russia.

“We are working to a roadmap, in accordance with which by about 2025, when all the infrastructure, programming and everything else necessary is ready, our fully driverless cars will be a reality,” Oleg Afanasiev, a press spokesperson for Russian truckmaker Kamaz, told Sk.ru.

But the scientists working on the technology itself are more circumspect in their predictions.

“I’m very cautious when bureaucrats from big companies [make predictions such as Chubais’], without specifying how it will happen,” says Stanislav Gol, director of KB Avrora, a company that works on developing unmanned ground vehicles including driverless cars.

“It’s one thing when, as we’ve seen abroad, many companies demonstrate what they can do on public roads, but can it be considered a completely robotized vehicle when it’s on a special road, with special cars accompanying the vehicle to help it – can that be considered going out on the road? In my understanding, no,” said Gol.

“When it will be like in the stories – when a fully automated vehicle is on the road and we can’t even tell whether there’s a person at the wheel or a robot – that’s of course not going to happen in 10 years, that’s much further away,” said Gol, whose company is a resident of the Skolkovo Foundation innovations hub. 

"Just one accident involving autonomous transport will have a huge fallout in society - the technology could be closed down completely for another 50 years."

No room for error

Industry players are aware that just one serious accident on the roads involving a driverless car could set back their development by decades.

“Everyone has come to understand that the technology is 90 percent ready, but even when it’s 99.99 percent ready, it still won’t be launched,” says Gol, whose product is currently being tested in various scenarios and weather conditions.

“Until we can teach [artificial] intelligence to learn the nuances of things that can occur unexpectedly on the roads … what will happen if transparent glass is being carried across the road, what if there’s a paper bag that the system perceives as a rock,” the system isn’t ready, he said.

“We need a mathematical revolution to overcome that 0.01 percent,” says Gol. “We all understand perfectly that to have just one accident involving autonomous transport will have a huge fallout in society – the technology could be closed down completely for another 50 years. It’s a huge responsibility,” he added.

Konstantin Trofimenko, director of the Centre for Research of Urban Transport Problems at the Higher School of Economics, a research university in Moscow, agrees.

“When smart cars will appear on the streets of cities is a difficult question, because for them to be integrated, it’s not just a technical issue, it’s a legal matter: if there's an accident, who will be to blame? That will be the biggest problem to solve before the cars can be introduced to cities,” he said.

Testing grounds

Driverless cars are already being tested in enclosed territories and private land such as university campuses, factories and military testing grounds, but unlike in parts of the U.S. and some European countries, there is currently no legal framework for testing them on public roads.

“Legislation is of course being prepared at all levels as part of our roadmap,” said Kamaz’s Afanasiev.

Trofimenko predicts that the cars will first be introduced on toll roads.

“Due to them being toll roads, usually there are not that many cars on them at any one time, so I think it’s there that smart roads technology will appear, which will greatly facilitate the integration of smart cars,” he said.

Smart highways are equipped with sensors that can take and give out information about traffic and weather conditions, as well as interactive signs that could communicate not only with drivers, but with their cars.

“Maybe at first it [driverless cars] will be introduced as a separate service: a route from Moscow to Petersburg in a smart car on a smart road,” said Trofimenko. “So yes, they could appear within the next 10 or 20 years, but they won’t be standard. Like electric cars now: there are maybe 100 of them in Moscow. So in theory you might see one on the road, but if you do everyone will stare and point. It will be the same with driverless cars,” he said.

“A full move over to roads that are only for driverless cars [will happen] only in the second half of the 21st century, at least in Russia,” Trofimenko believes.

Closed industrial territories, however, are another matter. This is where much driverless technology already on the market is in use.

“On closed [industrial] territories there are fewer legal issues and there is more demand for such products, in that operating systems and AI can already be applied there,” said KB Avrora’s Gol, citing examples such as aerodromes, factories, farms, container ports, mines and giant warehouses where driverless technology such as automated forklift trucks is already in use.

"For the system to work well, all cars need to be driverless, because if there's one old man left in his old Zhiguli, he will destroy the whole system and could cause an accident."

State support

The Russian government has allocated funding for both air and land pilotless transport technology as part of the National Technological Initiative, a public-private partnership aimed at creating new technology markets through 2035 that President Vladimir Putin has named as a priority policy.

Last October, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev announced that the NTI would receive 10 billion rubles ($127 million) from the state budget in 2016, to be spent on four areas of development including pilotless cars.

But it’s not just a question of money. Experts agree that Russia’s roads, infrastructure and weather conditions present additional challenges, and this is reflected in the blueprints for domestic driverless cars.

Albert Yefimov, head of the Skolkovo Foundation’s Robotics Centre, which has about 10 startups – including KB Avrora – working on driverless technology, sees Russian conditions as the country’s advantage on the global market, as all domestic inventions will from the very beginning take into account how the driverless device will behave in poor weather conditions and on roads with less than perfect markings.

“Google expressed relief in its report [on the results of testing their driverless cars at the beginning of this year] that it rained, because before that they had no opportunity to test the cars in rain because there was a drought in California,” he pointed out. “In Russia, it snows for at least six months of the year or it rains. Our group of developers is already focusing on that,” he said.

Kamaz’s Afanasiev echoed his words.

“Precisely because infrastructure in Russia differs from that in the U.S. or Europe, our programming research differs: the road markings and infrastructure don’t play the key role in work to develop our vehicles,” he said. “Their movement will be primarily oriented by other factors.”

Eye on the prize

For those watching the process of perfecting the technology, there is no doubt that it is worth the expense and effort.

Trofimenko said the introduction of driverless cars should revolutionise not only people’s access to cars, but road traffic organization and safety. Overall, he said, traffic will be much faster and better managed, and there should not be any accidents. Last year, there were 18.9 fatal accidents on Russia’s roads for every 100,000 people, compared to 9.3 in Europe, according to World Health Organisation figures.

“In terms of traffic management, a large proportion of holdups are caused by people… someone decided to change lanes, or turn round, or brake unexpectedly,” said Trofimenko. “If we get to a point where all cars are driverless, they will make much more efficient use of the roads. But for the system to work well, all cars need to be driverless, because if there’s one old man left in his old Zhiguli, he will destroy the whole system and could cause an accident.

“The question is how to get to that place from where we are now,” he added.

"Until we can teach [artificial] intelligence to learn the nuances of things that can occur unexpectedly on the roads..." the system isn't ready.

Kamaz is confident people will embrace its driverless models.

“Everything new is always greeted with questions and suspicion,” said Afanasiev.

“But look at the metro, it’s already basically a driverless system – the driver is only there in case a decision needs to be taken,” he said, adding that in some countries like the United Arab Emirates or Singapore metro systems are already completely driverless.

“It will be unusual at first but then it will become the norm,” he said.

“Russian carmakers are certainly not leading the way either in terms of competency or investment. But we have a chance of making a decent showing in the end if we act quickly,” said Yefimov, head of the Robotics Centre.

“The Russian automotive industry, despite its conservatism, is beginning to understand that it’s essential to develop them. And it is possible to make a car as intelligent as a person. Cars that behave like people are no longer rocket science,” he said.