Moscow Is Not the Ideal Place to Develop Self-Driving Cars, Russian Firms Say

But companies are doing it anyway.

Cognitive Technologies

Developers of self-driving cars in the United States are lucky that Silicon Valley is the home of the U.S. tech industry. California's sunny weather and well-maintained roads make it a good testing ground. That can't be said of Moscow.

The Russian capital is challenging even for human drivers, but local companies are testing self-driving cars there anyway, according to a recent report by The Guardian. Poor weather, including snow that obscures traffic signs, bad roads, and aggressive, unpredictable drivers make Moscow a self-driving car hell.

Cars developed in less-harsh environments can't possibly function in Moscow, Olga Uskova of Cognitive Technologies, a Russian software company, told The Guardian. Indeed, at a recent hackathon for self-driving cars, international competitors found the data from Russian roads to be inadequate. Snow often obscured traffic signs, which non-Russians said tend to be hard to tell apart anyway. A Russian team won the competition by digging into the trove of local dash-cam footage that has also become a staple of YouTube.

Waymo Ride on Public Roads
Waymo

Russian drivers feel the need to equip their cars with dash cams because crashes are common. Traffic laws are widely ignored in Moscow, where speeding violations only lead to a $4 fine, paid over the phone. There are nearly 20 serious crashes a day in the city.

But for now, the biggest hurdle for autonomous cars in Russia may be regulatory. Russia has no formal regulations sanctioning the test of self-driving cars on public roads. The only designated autonomous-car testing area in Moscow is a 400-meter (1,312-foot) track sprinkled with traffic signs and pedestrian crossings to simulate a real street. Test cars will need to rack up some real-world mileage eventually.

If self-driving cars are allowed onto the streets of Moscow in large numbers, the city could become an important crucible for the technology. Like Indian cities or even New York City, the challenging environment will push the limits of self-driving cars. If these cars can handle Moscow, they can probably handle anything.