Russian AV Developers Focused on Self Promotion

This summer, three local AV developers announced the launch of commercial services using driverless vehicles.

In June, Yandex began charging its robo-taxi users in Moscow. The paid trips are limited to the capital’s Yasenevo district, where the company has been testing its self-driving system for several years, including with actual passengers. Multiple passengers and children are not yet allowed, while trips can start and end at specific locations. The regulation also mandates a safety engineer to be present in the vehicle.

In the same month, truck maker Kamaz began using autonomous tractors to transport goods between Moscow and St Petersburg along a 400-mile stretch of V2X-prepared highway as part of the federal Driverless Logistic Corridors program. The route begins and ends at logistic hubs where semi-trailers are handed over to regular human-driven tractors for towing to the final destinations. Safety drivers are always present in the cabs. In July, SberAutoTech, a subsidiary of technology giant Sber, followed Kamaz with a similar scheme along the same route.

This may seem like good news for AV proponents, however, experts interviewed for this article were skeptical. Andrey Vorobyev, deputy head of the MADI ITS Competence Centre, suggested that all three companies were mostly pursuing promotional goals: “They have already been doing such test rides for a while. For instance, Yandex has been carrying passengers in this part of Moscow for two years.”

The lack of transparency makes it difficult to draw conclusions about the real state of things at the companies, he said: “AV developers in any part of the world are good at showing pretty demos but they are known to make overtly optimistic claims about the technology’s capabilities and implementation timeframes.” Meanwhile, many peer-reviewed articles around the world show that driverless systems are currently at Level 3 autonomy while Level 4 is still a technological barrier: “It’s generally accepted that the technology is still immature and cannot function without human assistance.” Coincidentally, Kamaz’s own AV development plan includes the release of the Level 4 system in 2024. Kamaz was contacted by the author and did not respond.

Yandex’s press service emailed that its pace of implementation is in line with the regulatory framework. In March 2022, Russian developers were allowed to remove the safety driver from behind the wheel while they must still be in the vehicle. This three-year temporary framework is expected to prove that companies are ready for further legislative progress.

Post-hype issues

The news comes at a time of growing frustration with self-driving technology around the world. In Russia, driver confidence is at an all-time low, according to a survey by insurer Alfastrakhovanie: 48% of respondents disapprove of public testing of AVs while 32% see it as a serious danger. Despite these issues, regular drivers are not disruptive to robo-taxis, Yandex’s press service emailed: “Drivers mostly perceive AVs calmly, some show interest in them.”

Last month, domestic media reported that St Petersburg’s transport committee was considering banning AVs from the city center. At the same time, a high-profile traffic police officer stated in an interview: “Neither technically, infrastructurally, nor legislatively have we reached the point where we can allow fully driverless vehicles.”

The same pessimism can be found among logistic companies, said Vladimir Matyagin, president of association Gruzavtotrans. Most of them believe that the driverless technology will become commercially attractive in the 2030s at the earliest: “Playing with it is unaffordable for most carriers, except for the largest companies.”

According to some observers, it took the driverless Kamaz truck four days to travel from St Petersburg to Moscow, compared to one day for an ordinary driver, he said: “As a commercial operator, I’m interested in faster vehicle turnaround times.” Furthermore, freight operators cannot benefit from savings on wages because the safety driver must be present in the cab. Worse still, there are unresolved concerns about the safety of AVs. “No doubt, AVs are our future but a distant one. For this to happen, we must overcome legislative issues as well as down-to-earth challenges in companies,” he said.

Vorobyev is concerned that a lack of transparency at the developers is making it difficult to monitor the implementation of the government’s AV road map (read more in TU-Automotive’s report). He suggested that this issue could be solved through technology competitions: “This is the only practical way to test who can do what. I think it’s unlikely that developers such as Kamaz and Sber will take part because for any large company the negative consequences of losing outweigh the possible benefits of winning.” However, for smaller teams, it is a chance to showcase their potential.

The skepticism about driverless vehicles is also a good thing, he said, because the development teams are less stressed these days: “A lot of effort used to go into managing stakeholder expectations. Progress is evident, however, it will take more time to reach Level 4 autonomy.”


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