[Analytics] Even PM isn’t a pilot to them: Russian innovations through the self-driving

Driverless Toyota Prius hybrid cars, operated by Yandex. Taxi, part of Yandex.NV, take part in a self-driving taxi trial on a test track near Moscow. Photographer: Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg. Sketched by the Pan Pacific Agency.

Annual key event of the ‘Open Innovations’ International Forum is a plenary meeting with Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. “Intelligent Economics. Three dilemmas for the digital nation” was a theme to discuss at a plenary meeting this year. All dilemmas were proposed to be announced by Mr. Medvedev himself. How the discussion was evolved, the Pan Pacific Agency reported.

There are few white armchairs in the central hall of the Skolkovo’s building ‘Matrix’, or ‘Matryoshka’. Participants of ‘Open Innovations’ could see it after an additional check of the state security service and a short trip on a special shuttles from the Technopark of the ‘Skolkovo innovation center’. The number of registered participants of ‘Open Innovations’ by the time the plenary session began exceeded 15K, the official application of the event reported. Only a few hundred of them were invited to the plenary room, but the rest could watch online broadcasts.

Headliners of the plenary meeting were three PM’s at once: of Russia – Dmitry Medvedev, of the Republic of Belarus – Sergei Roumas, of the Republic of Uzbekistan – Abdulla Aripov. The interests of the economies of Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Armenia, the three other countries from the closest environment of Russia, were represented by Tigran Sargsyan, Chairman of the Board of the Eurasian Economic Commission (a watchdog of the Eurasian Economic Union oriented to Russia). Transnational corporations were represented by top managers of Bayer AG (Werner Baumann, Chairman of the Board) and Google Play (Purnima Kochikar, Director of Business Development). The scientific part was represented by the Director of the Future of Humanity Institute Nick Bostrom and the moderator of the discussion Ivan Oseledets, Professor of the Skoltech.

Following the request of the moderator, the Russian PM told about three main challenges of the digital economy. In his opinion, the first is the digital security (“No hacker could be able to bring down, for example, the entire banking system of the country,” Dmitry Medvedev explained), the second is a “labor market transformation in connection with robotics,” and the third is “of course, legal regulation that should not slow down innovative development.”

With a special knowledge of the matter, Dmitry Medvedev, a former lawyer, settled on the lattest one. And the matter is not only in his legal past. “The law, by its very nature, is conservative. Without experiments, there could be no implementation of discoveries or new technologies. But very often testing isn’t go alongside with the current standards, that leads to very unpleasant consequences. I will illustrate it with a Russian example so as not to offend anyone,” Russian PM began.

“We agreed to ramp up self-driving cars. I personally held several meetings, gave instructions, which were done by our companies. But Russian certification system is a very difficult. Only 55 self-driving cars are tested on the roads now, some of them drive through the ‘Skolkovo territory”, Dmitry Medvedev continued (the press service of the Russian government excluded the prime minister’s joke in the official transcript of the speech: “So, be careful…”).

Russia. Moscow. Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev during the plenary meeting “Intelligent Economics. Three Dilemmas for the Digital Nation” as part of the Open Innovations 2019 forum at the Skolkovo Innovation Center. Pavel Kassin / TASS photo hosting agency

As a result, Russian companies can’t test as many unmanned vehicles as they would like. “For example, in the United States, about 1,500 self-driving cars are certified for tests, and about 400 in China. We have 55. We need to work faster,” said Dmitry Medvedev.

Yandex, Russia’s largest internet firm, started testing the technology of the self-driving taxi in December 2017. The company began testing robotaxis based on the Toyota Prius in Skolkovo (‘Open Innovations’ Forum’s stage) and Innopolis (Tatarstan). Taxis can only be used by residents of this science cities who have agreed to participate in the test. The car could be ordered through the taxi application. In September 2019, the company announced that its robotaxi have passed 1M miles in fully autonomous driving.

However, Yandex’s robotaxi in Skolkovo was involved in an unpleasant incident, said Russian billionaire Viktor Vekselberg, the president of the Skolkovo Fund, at another economic forum this summer. “We (Skolkovo) entered into an agreement with Yandex. This compony wanted to test self-driving vehicles in the territory. We began to ride a self-driving taxi. But one of the inhabitants of our innovative city wrote a statement to the Prosecutor General, said he was very worried that the self-driving cars was traveling on the same road, which his children does. The Prosecutor General’s Office has banned tests, and we are in a difficult dialogue with law enforcement agencies,” said Vekselberg, quoted by The Bell.

Situation was resolved: self-driving taxis now ride along Skolkovo, but the driver is in the driver’s seat. Ivan Oseledets told Dmitry Medvedev: “They wrote to the prosecutor’s office that you can’t drive without a driver, and it was forbidden. That is, they drive, but with a driver behind the wheel, who does not hold the wheel.”

“This can be corrected because I gathered everyone – and, by the way, the Ministry of Internal Affairs officers, who first of all observe this, and the prosecutor’s office… We just need to change the rules,” said Dmitry Medvedev, but not very confidently, as the Pan Pacific Agency seemed.

Of course, Russian authorities find it difficult to change the common rules for the technological development. But Russia’s closest neighbors, Belorussia and Uzbekistan, might be an example in the such spheres.

Belarusian Prime Minister Sergei Roumas proudly announced that in December 2017, his country’s President Alexander Lukashenko passed a special decree on the development of the digital economy. In 2019, residents of the High Technology Center are expected to export $2B worth of products, despite the fact that the whole country exports are a $14B of high-tech products, and this is a third of its exports.

“Our experience has shown that brain drain, which yesterday seemed like a catastrophe, is not a fatal problem today. Many of those who had previously left to work in other countries began to return to us. Graduates of IT specialties practically all remain in Belarus,” said the PM.

His colleague from Uzbekistan Abdulla Aripov also laid out all his trump cards.

“This year, Uzbekistan successfully completed testing the 5G mobile network, and we set ourselves the task of organizing a commercial launch of the network in Tashkent next year,” he said. “Following the results of the official visit of the President of the Republic of Uzbekistan Shavkat Mirziyoyev to the United Arab Emirates in November, with the support of the Government of the Emirates, we are launching a joint project to train 1 million programmers, providing everyone with the opportunity to learn digital skills through a single portal of distance learning based on the training programs of leading American companies”, Mr. Aripov added, which made a big impression: the thesis about 1M programmers of Uzbekistan in the subsequent discussion was repeated more than once.

Returning to testing self-driving cars, the Russian government as a whole is ready to support the simplification of their certification and the procedure for testing self-driving cars in the territories of innovative special economic zones, in innovation centers and on private roads. This orders was given by Deputy PM Maksim Akimov, who immediately supervises both innovation and transport, Kommersant reported. But it’s not executed yet.

The economic bloc of Russian government must be focused on innovations, both officials and businessmen repeated at the ‘Open Innovations’ Forum. “The govt is a major player in the market in any economy, not only in Russia. It can be either a driver or a brake on the digital economy. The speed of development of the country’s economy directly depends on the effectiveness of its work,” Maxim Oreshkin, Minister of Economic Development of Russia, said. “Everyone knows the proverb ‘The Russian are slow starters but they drive fast.’ The digital revolution is not a question of the future, it’s happening now. If we don’t take timely decisions at the level of individual companies and at the state level, we will start to lag behind very much,” said Victor Vekselberg.

All this words, however, will not help Russia immediately reduce the backlog in the scale of testing self-driving vehicles. More than 1,400 self-driving cars, trucks and other vehicles are currently in testing by more than 80 companies across 36 U.S. states, plus D.C. itself, said Elaine Chao, U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary, at the Uber Elevate Summit in last July, TechCrunch reported. In USA self-driving vehicles without a human operator are largely still in the testing stage. But since July 1 it will be able to operate in Florida, for example. Waymo, which launched a commercial driverless taxi service in December 2018, says it’s now servicing over 1,000 riders with a fleet of more than 600 cars, according to the Bloomberg.

In Chinese Changsha, capital of Hunan province, the general public can use a self-driving taxi Apollo platform powered by Baidu since September, China’s search giant and national artificial intelligence champion, South China Morning Post reported. Baidu launched 45 cars supported robotaxi services in the city about two years after Waymo. But the driverless future may come in China faster than in the USA. Projects like a Changsha’s are set to follow across the country. Two Chinese companies announced they are looking to deploy self-driving taxi services in Shanghai by the end of year and early 2020, two China-based autonomous driving start-ups have offered robotaxi services around their campuses over the past years.

Summing up everything that was said in the panel discussion of Open Innovations, Dmitry Medvedev quoted the phrase of the Russian classical writer Leo Tolstoy, “He scares, but I’m not scared.” “We should not be scared, development cannot be stopped,” the prime minister, known for his advanced technological addictions, interpreted the phrase. It seems to the Russian government that it’s time to become as innovative as Dmitry Medvedev, the country’s most famous admirer of the ‘Apple’.

Other countries’ govts are on the similar way. After ‘Open Innovations’ Forum’s plenary meeting Russian and Belarusian PMs are holding talks in Moscow. The talks started with a brief exchange of views about development prospects of Skolkovo, the Hi-Tech Park of Belarus and the Belarus-China Industrial Park Great Stone, BelTA reported. “This is also a good opportunity to compare notes on the integration agenda,” Dmitry Medvedev said. He added that possible cooperation between Russian and Belarusian tech parks is a good idea.

Perhaps something can be done together with self-driving cars too.

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