On-Road Belarus AV Tests Bring Closer Links With China

To most people in the western world, Belarus is just a speck on the map somewhere between Dublin and Tokyo.

To technology experts, it is a small, albeit booming, exporter of software. The government spurred growth of its IT sector with the tax-easying Deсree on Development of Digital Economy at the end of 2017. These days, Belarus companies and start-ups are supplying abroad digital products worth $1.4Bn annually, six times the volume of their Russian colleagues if measured by cash per citizen.

The growth is particularly fueled by opportunities in the new mobility market. One prominent case comes from Juno, a ride-hailing start-up with business operations in New York while all the development conducted in Belarus, sold to Gett in 2017 for $200M.

The new policy has brought in foreign investors, notably the Chinese among others. Chinese companies have been long used to seek intelligence from their former Soviet friends. “There are skilled machine learning specialists in Belarus and a strong OpenStreetMaps community means that there are mappers,” said Alexander Matveenko, founder of start-up MapData. “I’m also familiar with several virtual reality projects.” MapData, a specialist in software development for recognition of road markings and signage, was recently sold to US-based MapBox.

The Chinese partners are in a great need of it now with Beijing’s ambitions in autonomous transport. “Five residents of Chinese-Belarusian Industrial Park Great Stone conduct R&D activities purposed at self-driving transport such as navigational and controlling systems as well as artificial intelligence, among others,” the park’s press-secretary Olga Rudaya wrote in an e-mail. “These are Chinese, Israeli and Swiss-funded companies.”

Last January, the park’s resident Chinese robot manufacturer International Intelligent Machines (IIM) announced the soon to be launched 300,000sq-ft driverless technology development center and a test site due in April or May, to support earlier progress achieved by the company’s departments in China and Singapore. “The IIM has got rich experience in the development of unmanned or self-driving cars,” wrote in an e-mail Dmitry Samal, project manager at IIM-Belarus. “We have successfully developed and tested self-driven minibuses at the territory of Singapore University in 2018. All the systems, both hardware and software ones, were developed by engineers of IIM.”

For the first time in Belarus, IIM is to establish a full cycle of the unmanned vehicle development down to on-site testing: “The Great Stone test bed imitates urban environment in quite a lot of details such as junctions, traffic lights and bicycle lanes. We’re advancing well towards the goal of autonomous driving.”

The reason to pick Belarus instead of Russia or Ukraine was “quite good conditions for investments and qualified engineers for our R&D projects”, according to Samal. IIM also sees potential market in the country’s manufacturing sector. Some of the most promising consumers are BelAZ, mining machinery producer belonging to the global top-10, and truckmaker MAZ, and agricultural and forest machinery producer Minsk Tractor Works (MTW). All the three claim to be running self-driving pilots. “We are just at the start of our big way and collaboration both with Belarusian companies and Chinese ones,” Samal said. “We can definitely say that one of the main fields of application is agriculture.”

One might ask why Belarus attracts drastically lower volume of investment than countries such as Singapore or Israel. Ironically, the answer is the aforementioned regulation. Belarusian legislators might want to borrow some boldness from their foreign colleagues because they don’t seem to possess it right now. They have not kept faith with the promise, given back in 2017, to let self-driving cars onto the public roads. “I think that the government will pick a beaten path with self-driving on-road legislation, they will sit and watch and carbon copy some of the global best practices like it had happened to other innovations,” said Matveenko.

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