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Russia Looks To Make Automotive Inroads With Driverless Vehicles

An Uber car (back) and a Yandex.Taxi car on the streets of Moscow in July.

After years of wallowing in the slow lane when it comes to new technology, Russian automakers and tech giants are finally making inroads in developing self-driving vehicles.

The country's first driverless bus, Matryoshka, made by Bakulin Motors Group, could be seen earlier this month in test action at a conference in Vladivostok. Russia is hoping to make the vehicle a centerpiece of transportation when it hosts soccer's 2018 World Cup.

Moreover, the trial comes on the heels of search-and-Internet-resource giant Yandex's announcement this summer that it was teaming up with truck maker Kamaz, state-funded research group NAMI, and the German automotive company Daimler to create self-driving vehicles.

Yandex is also the country's largest taxi company, and recently took a controlling stake in the Russian operations of the ride-sharing app Uber. The newly formed venture is valued at $3.7 billion and offers services in six countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States.

The timing of the push coincides with the biannual International Motor Show Germany, one of the world's most important automotive gatherings, where electrification and autonomous cars were out in force, showing the shift in attitudes that are making self-driving cars a serious threat to traditional vehicles.

"Self-driving cars are set to revolutionize the way we commute within a matter of a decade," according to Yandex's project leader, Dmitry Polishchuk.

For years, Russian automotive companies have lacked direction in the drive to modernize the local industry. The country's volatile auto market once looked to be one of the world’s most promising. But sales have steadily decreased over the past four years after reaching almost 3 million in 2012.

So work on cars with no steering wheel and no pedals had taken a back seat.

Automakers, however, are finally navigating more-advanced industry goals with a more precise road map with plans for the first self-driving truck in 2018, automatic braking systems for all automobiles by 2022, and other safety features that rely heavily on technology. Analysts predict that by 2035, some two-thirds of Russia's cars will be self-driving.

To kick-start the move toward driverless vehicles, a controlled road for self-driving cars was opened in Moscow in early August.

The street may be only 400 meters in length, but it creates normal city driving conditions, including bus stops, crosswalks, and other impediments.

Andrey Chernogorov, general-director of Moscow-based Cognitive Technologies, says the road is a move in the right direction, but laments that "it's impossible to create a real-life environment on a small testing area."

"A new and advanced technology has to be tested on a public road, but unfortunately this option is not yet available in Russia," he adds.

Russia isn't alone in the struggle to roll out autonomous cars.

Several high-profile accidents during testing in streets around the world have shown the complexity and reality of the task at hand.

In Berlin, a prototype from the global conglomerate Magna International drove the same 11-kilometer route for months but still had difficulties with the course as its sensors dealt with common occurrences such as garbage blowing along a street.

"Autonomous driving is a marathon," Klaus Froehlich, head of development at BMW AG, told reporters at the auto show last week in Frankfurt.

According to the German auto giant, fully automated cars require about 150 million kilometers of testing, a distance equivalent to going around the planet more than 3,600 times.

"The main problem is computing power. The other issue -- and that's being underestimated the most -- is the sensory perception of the car," he added, referring to the need of a driverless vehicle to analyze and deal with multiple factors such as other cars, cyclists, and participants in any given driving environment.

Yandex headquarters in Moscow
Yandex headquarters in Moscow

​That issue has helped speed up marriages between automakers and technology firms to produce self-driving vehicles.

Yandex's investment follows the path of its American rival Google, which has gone full throttle in its investments into the sector.

Just like Google, Yandex is relying on its expertise in navigation, geolocation, computer vision, and machine learning developed in its other ventures and services, including Yandex.Navigator and Yandex.Maps.

The Russian company isn't shying away from the task either.

It is shooting for Level 5 autonomy with its vehicle, which means the car's system would be able to handle every aspect of driving without the need of assistance from a driver. This goal comes in sharp contrast to many competitors who look to reach lower goals first and then build on their successes.

But with the market for self-driving cabs alone expected be worth $2 trillion by 2030, according to consultants McKinsey, the stakes are high and Yandex knows it's playing catch-up.

"At this point in time, there are dozens of companies around the world building their own driverless cars, but only a few of them have components crucial for turning this project into reality," according to Yandex's Polishchuk.

"These components include a stack of reliable technologies and algorithms, engineering expertise and resources, and access to the market for self-driving vehicles. Yandex.Taxi, with the backing of Yandex, is one of the few players who can boast of possessing all of the above."

The push for self-driving technology isn't limited to Russia's roads for Cognitive Technologies, which is part of the group working on the World Cup bus.

After intense testing over the summer, the company is nearing production of Russia's first self-driving combine harvester.

Though self-driving harvesters and tractors have become more common, led by the John Deere company, which currently has about 200,000 driverless tractors on farms worldwide, Cognitive is using its own technological advancements that it believes makes its equipment superior, according to Olga Uskova, the company's president.

According to Uskova, Russia's driverless harvester is different because it uses a sole video camera instead of laser scanners to move around fields.

"We were able to create an advanced computer vision system that allows one camera to achieve similar results as leading brands that use three to four sensors," Uskova says. "As a result, the costs of using our technology are three to four times less."

Five years of trial and error has brought Russia closer to other countries in the race to develop driverless technology.

She expects to produce fully self-driving tractors by 2023 or 2024 and boldly predicts that "Russian tractors using driverless technology will be able to compete with the world's leading brands."