Russian AV expansion Shows Regulators Must be On-Board

Russian AV developer, Yandex, has partnered with Moscow in two new driverless pilots, both starting later this year.

The company is expanding its driverless ambitions to trams, starting with depot rides of a tramcar supplied by the city government, to be later continued with empty tramcar’s night tests on streets.

In cars, Yandex is in the last-step approval of tests with actual passengers in Moscow through a scheme similar to Waymo’s Trusted Tester program. A limited group of volunteers will be suggested rides in pre-defined streets, taking and ending trips from pre-defined locations. The company’s achievements has given the city authorities a reason to pledge “the Europe-first capital with a robo-taxi service”.

Time to serve

Today, at least five cities globally have robo-taxi programs with passengers. Waymo’s been providing service for a while in Phoenix, Arizona, and has recently expanded it to San Francisco, California. In China, Baidu and AutoX has launched their own schemes in a few cities. Yandex’s been running the tests with passengers in Innopolis for three years now to reach 22,000 trips, over four trips per town resident.

In Moscow, the steps already passed in Innopolis will be repeated, said Yulia Shveyko, Yandex’s head of media relations for self-driving cars: “In every location, the project comes through certain steps. Since testing with passengers was launched in Innopolis, the number of taxis, service users and pick-up/drop-off locations has been increased, the area expanded. All that time, safety drivers were present in the cars. We’re hoping that progress in regulation will allow us, in the short-term, to take them away.”

While people’s interest is huge in Moscow with some 10,000 applicants, the developer will initially accept only a small cohort of testers, she also said, in order to balance demand with capabilities of the fleet, gradually adding more participants. “Yandex’s been testing AVs on Moscow’s streets for several years now, so, today’s task is to develop an approach to the user service,” said Shveyko. “That is, what constitutes passengers’ comfort, clear user terms and optimal pricing strategy, and training the help desk, among other goals.”

However, Moscow, Europe’s largest metropolitan area, suggests different driving conditions from Innopolis, a small town. Thus, the developer can meet technical issues later on its strategy when expanding area served by robo-taxis, thinks Alexander Evsin, deputy head of the Moscow’s traffic management centre and director of the situation center: “In some T-junctions, driving by the book doesn’t work, drivers need to interact with each other, even use some aggression to pull out onto the main road. This is, currently, impossible with robots.”

Artem Fokin, head of business development at Yandex SDG, supported his view by saying that calm residential areas of metropolises are at the forefront of AVs’ current capabilities. “The self-driving technology’s reached the stage when it can be implemented in towns. For today, we’re sure, and the use cases at our American and Chinese colleagues prove it, that AVs can also be used with no driver behind the wheel in selected districts of larger cities. We estimate that the next step, reachable in three to four years, is city-wide trips in any conditions including rush hour.”

Good will is the key

Besides the two locations in Russia, Yandex also is running public tests in the US’s Michigan and Israel. The company was meaning to launch tests with passengers in the US last year during the later-cancelled Detroit Auto Show, Shveyko said: “However, the lockdowns following the COVID-19 pandemic has interfered with our plans in the US to a higher degree than in home. Still, our Ann Arbor-based fleet is now normally operated and we hope to offer our robo-taxis for the city’s residents in the meantime.” The Israeli authorities hasn’t yet allowed AV tests with regular passengers, she said: “Nevertheless, the legislative work is underway and we hope to launch robo-taxis there in the foreseeable future.”

In Russia, regulatory obstacles exist as well. While many essential laws are still in the pipeline, public tests of all kinds are founded on temporary local acts, making the speed of AV development heavily dependent on the city authorities’ attitude, Shveyko said: “For instance, future transition to a full self-driving mode will require additional approvals by the Moscow authorities.” Also, the robo-taxi providers aren’t yet permitted to charge trip fees.

Regulatory gaps concern the city authorities as well. Particularly, a lack of AV certification procedures is among the reasons why the Moscow government approaches AVs in baby steps, Evsin said: “At the moment, any developers’ technology is a black box with unclear capabilities (to drive safely in accordance with traffic rules). Although it’s acceptable in a series of test rides, we need total clarity by the time when mass deployment starts.”

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