Russian AV Developers Critical of Kremlin’s Street Tests Project

Developers of self-driving vehicles used to complain of the lack of legislation and absence of extensive testing programs on public roads as two major factors compromising progress.

Finally, the government has officially agreed to allow AVs on to the streets and have set the regulations required. So, why are some companies now shunning the project they had been asking for?

According to the three-year pilot scheme, developers will be allowed to test their technology within certain areas in Moscow and Kazan. To take part, an AV developer must get safety approval from the government-owned Central Scientific Research Automobile and Automotive Engines Institute (NAMI) and provide video footage verifying that their vehicles had been successfully tested at a closed site.

The government pushed this through quickly with a draft decision released for revision by independent experts on November 1, 2018, and a final version of decision signed by the Russian prime minister on November 26. A start date was also moved from the initial one of March 1, 2019 to December 1, 2018.

However, the document came with important parts missing. As of January 16, 2019, only a general description of the safety approval procedure is given. The developers must record their vehicle’s movement with navigational and video equipment but requirements are not specified. Emergency guidelines for any potential road accidents are also absent.

A lack of clear regulation was the main reason for developers Smart Vision, Starline and Cognitive Technologies not to enter the pilot scheme, companies’ representatives told TU-Automotive.

“Certainly the project is interesting and we want to have zones to try [the technology],” said Victor Shirshin, founder of the Smart Vision development alliance. “Participance cannot be discussed before we have at least draft rules of functioning in pilot zones.”

Starline’s PR manager Tatyana Parvan mentioned the same reasons. She also said that the St Petersburg company finds it difficult testing vehicles in Moscow and Kazan. Yet, in the meantime local developers are known to go abroad to test their vehicles so these domestic zones must simplify the task.

The local pilot scheme in its current state is containing barriers that make testing abroad easier than at home, Shirshin said. He recalled an earlier case with unmanned aerial vehicles regulation: “The rules for drones are impossible to strictly stick to. Everyone [in the country] who uses drones has to violate the law. If the same happens to automobiles, we will look for other opportunities.”

The pilot project’s authors had not thoroughly considered the mechanisms of initiating and managing street trials, agreed Andrey Karpenkov, head of the department of robotics at Kovrov State Technological Academy. “This is Russia’s real problem,“ he said. “Putting myself in the place of an ordinary human driver, I wouldn’t want to be involved in this autonomous driving experiment because I understand that it brings more risk. AVs must be strictly tested before letting them into streets. The community must be warned well ahead. The urban area for tests must be responsively chosen and may be even restricted for most people.”

Even with rules unclear, KSTA wants to have a go at the pilot, the researcher said, because AV departments in universities and colleges do not have funds for testing vehicles abroad. The press secretary for NTI Autonet, the body in charge for the street trials project, declined to respond to the criticism. As a whole, TU-Automotive polled thirteen AV developers and eight of them said they would not be participating although not all for the same reasons.

The country’s most prominent AV developers are software company Yandex, government-owned automotive institute NAMI, truck makers GAZ and KAMAZ. All said they were interested in the offered street rides though NAMI and GAZ said that they have not come to a final decision yet. KAMAZ confirmed its participance but the company’s press service stated in an e-mail that testing in closed test site situations were higher on its list of priorities.

Foreign developers showed no interest to the pilot. “Currently they are not considering Russia as a top priority market for their driverless car technologies,” said Vadim Toporov, the associate director at consultancy firm KPMG Russia.

Yandex is the main proponent for the pilot. The company has been running four driverless taxi cars in two small zones for several months and claims to be promoting the fastest possible deployment of an autonomous taxi service. Earlier Yandex claimed that its technology successfully passed tests in winter conditions and on poor road infrastructure.

Polled experts believe that eventually the authorities will give the rules a shape clear enough to attract other developers. Shirshin asked: “Surely, the rules should have been discussed beforehand? This is how it usually goes here: a law is put into action, criticism emerges and the regulators are forced to modify the law. It always has to be done in order to make the whole thing work.”

However, others are taking a more positive view with Parvan saying: “It is good, though, that AV related legislation is being created. Perfect or not, the law will promote development of infrastructure.” While Andrey Karpenkov of KSTA concluded: “Anyway, this is the first case for Russia and I think it will be getting better.”

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