The U.S. may be streets ahead in the development of driverless cars, but there is one area where Russia could still overtake, Russian technology experts believe. Their secret weapon? That tried-and-tested historical ally, General Winter.

For it’s one thing to see driverless cars being tested on the streets of sunny California, and quite another to design a car that can navigate even in blizzard conditions, when roads are frozen, visibility is poor and road markings and other indicators are covered with snow and dirt. Russia hopes to get ahead in this area and others with the launch of a new format of technology competitions collectively known as Up Great.

The aim of the Winter City competition is to create a driverless car that is as safe in winter conditions as a human driver. Photo: Max Pixel.

“The main aim in setting up these competitions is to overcome technical barriers to the creation of new products,” Mikhail Antonov, deputy director general of state investment vehicle RVC, said Tuesday at the Moscow offices of the Agency for Strategic Initiatives at a conference devoted to the Up Great technology competitions. Three state development institutions have joined forces to hold the competitions: the Skolkovo Foundation, RVC and the Agency for Strategic Initiatives.

“The competition tasks should result in the identified tech barriers being physically solved. Solving them should enable us to create an entire class of products and technology that will be in demand by real companies and investors,” said Antonov.

The winners of the competitions, selected on the basis of a working prototype, will receive cash prizes of about 200 million rubles, or about $3.4 million (the exact prize funds are due to be approved by the government shortly). The format, while new to Russia, is one that has already produced many successful projects in Europe, the U.S. and Asia, the experts noted.

“Google’s self-driving cars, which you can see on the roads if you go to California, are ultimately the consequence of this kind of competition,” said Kirill Kaem, senior vice president for innovations of the Skolkovo Foundation.

“Everything began with the DARPA Grand Challenge 2005 competition [a competition for autonomous vehicles funded by the U.S. Department of Defense], where a team from Stanford University won $2 million. Those 15 engineers who won then started working for Google, developing driverless cars, and by 2014, their designs had already driven more than one million kilometres,” said Kaem.

Skolkovo senior vice president for innovations Kirill Kaem presenting the competitions on Tuesday. Photo: RVC.

“We weren’t afraid to copy the format of the DARPA Grand Challenge: I consider it to be a great example,” said Albert Yefimov, head of the robotics centre at Sberbank and an advisor to the chairman of the Skolkovo Foundation.

Other foreign competitions mentioned by the organisers as having inspired the Up Great competitions include the Luna Lander Challenge funded by NASA, the Nexflix Prize to develop an algorithm for predicting user ratings for films, the Airbus Shopfloor Challenge for robotics teams, Austria’s ELROB (European Land Robot Trial), and the Amazon Robotics Challenge focused on automated warehouse processes. In Russia, the introduction of cash prize competitions for specific tech solutions is part of the implementation of the National Technology Initiative, a public-private partnership aimed at creating the conditions for Russia to become a global tech leader by 2035.

The Up Great competitions, which are open to both Russian and foreign companies, are not just about finding the best technology for one particular problem, though that is one of their aims. The idea is to provide talented young teams of engineers with an incentive to start their own companies, provide solutions that are in demand, and ultimately, to make those engineers rich, the competitions’ organisers say.

Yefimov recalled asking one of the co-organisers of the DARPA Grand Challenge why they had held the competition one year, as none of the technologies presented was at all likely to be bought by the Pentagon.

“He said: ‘We don’t care whether the Pentagon buys it or not, or whether it’s in demand. We have made a community. And that’s the most important service.’ That community is more valuable than any of the solutions produced,” said Yefimov.  

Albert Yefimov, an advisor to the Skolkovo Foundation's chairman, says the contests will boost Russia's tech community. Photo: RVC.

In that same spirit, the Skolkovo innovations ecosystem is at the disposal of competitors, regardless of the competitions' outcome, Kaem told the conference.

“Skolkovo can attract investors, and we can share our extensive network,” he said. “We have a hackspace and a shared resource centre where you can make use of services such as 3D printing and prototyping. We have Skoltech [the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology], if your idea requires deeper scientific research. We invite you to make use of the full range of services of mentor support, grants, and acceleration programmes that Skolkovo offers. Whether you win [the competition] or not, become a Skolkovo resident: we’ll help you in any way we can,” said Kaem.  

The first two competitions to have been devised are Winter City, aimed at creating driverless transport that can function in winter conditions as safely as a human driver, and First Element, whose goal is the creation of a hydrogen fuel cell that is as effective as internal combustion engines and batteries. Monday’s conference included presentations of both competitions and the technical requirements, as well as practical sessions devoted to creating driverless vehicles, the fuel element market, how to make a prototype in a short period of time, and how to attract financing for a tech project.

Participants in the Winter City competition have one year to get ready a prototype that can travel 50 kilometres in less than three hours. The vehicles will compete at a closed testing ground, as driverless transport cannot legally be tested on Russian public roads. The course will feature pedestrians, prams, bikes, other forms of transport, imitation roadworks and other obstacles designed to imitate real-life situations. For safety reasons, the projects will have to share their vehicle systems’ technical specifications in advance.

The Matryoshka driverless bus made by Volgabus has undergone testing at the Skolkovo innovation city. Photo:

The competition will consist of three tasks, starting with driving along more or less straight roads for 20 kilometres at an average speed of at least 30 kilometres per hour (this task must be accomplished in 40 minutes). Next the vehicles must complete a cycle of acceleration and stopping, keeping the necessary distance from other vehicles, over a distance of four kilometres at an average speed of at least 6 kilometres per hour. Finally, the vehicles must drive for 26 kilometres at a minimum of 20 kilometres per hour in conditions that mimic built-up city districts.

Vehicles will be issued with fines in the form of additional minutes added to their times for breaking traffic rules. Some mistakes, such as running a pedestrian over, will result in so many penalty points being issued that it will be impossible for that contester to win.

The weather conditions aren’t limited to snow, but could also include rain and fog. Tasks must be carried out both during the day and after sunset, to check how the self-driving vehicles function in the dark. Competitors will be able to access a 3D model of the testing ground in advance.

The organisers expect about 15 companies to take part, some of which have already confirmed their involvement, said Alexei Gonnochenko, the competition’s coordinator.

“Many companies around the world are already testing driverless systems in the snow, but none have yet solved the issue. The creation of driverless transport that works in winter conditions is the aim of the Winter City competition,” said Gonnochenko.