Russian Autonomous Developer Unfazed by Western Giants

While most AV interested eyes are trained on the big US, European and Asian carmakers and tech leaders, a veteran Russian incumbent has made a big push into developing AV technology.

With a quick development cycle, Yandex recently rolled out autonomous taxi services in the Russian cities of Innopolis and Skolkovo, albeit with a human “safety engineer” riding along, in case of malfunction. As big as Russia is, however, Yandex has ambitions that transcend its borders. TU-Automotive had a conversation with the head of the company’s self-driving car project, Dmitry Polischuk, about his work and the firm’s plans.

Q: Was your company inspired by Google’s Waymo to get into the self-driving car segment?

“Self-driving is a software problem, making IT companies best positioned to solve the most important challenges of self-driving. Companies such as Yandex, Baidu, and Google all have decades of experience in machine learning, computer vision and mapping, among others. With the ability to build self-driving technology in-house and a market-leading ride-hailing division within the company, Yandex.Taxi, it was a natural fit for Yandex to dedicate a team to autonomous technologies.”

Q: When did your company’s self-driving program begin?

“The Yandex self-driving team first began working on our driverless technology in early 2017, combining our expertise in machine learning, navigation, mapping tools, and cloud technologies. In May 2017, we introduced our prototype and first began testing on closed tracks. We rapidly advanced from testing on closed tracks to driving on the busy streets of Moscow by February 2018. I started at Yandex more than 11 years ago and have been running the self-driving program from the onset of our work.”

Q: Do you have a time frame for rolling out AVs to other countries?

“The Yandex self-driving program operates within the Yandex.Taxi division at Yandex. Yandex.Taxi currently operates in hundreds of cities across 15 countries. In the future, we see a great potential of the integration of self-driving vehicles into our ride-hailing fleets. Not only will the self-driving cars serve to keep passengers safer but it will also have important impacts on logistics and the costs… We believe the self-driving technology should be ready in about three to four years to operate in certain urban areas without a driver but there are other factors that will determine the future, including regulation.”

Q: How far down the road are you with AV tech?

“Yandex.Taxi is currently operating a fully autonomous ride-hailing service in two cities in Russia. Passengers can order rides to set destinations within the city through the Yandex.Taxi app and the self-driving car arrives with just the safety engineer in the passenger seat. The service is actively operating through winter weather conditions and has served over 2,000 passenger rides since we started it in August.”

Q: Which are the best Western potential markets for your self-driving auto technology and why?

“At the current stage of testing, each market offers our team a different environment on the roads to test the technology and develop it further. For instance, in Tel Aviv, there are very narrow roads and compared to other locations where we have been operating there are a lot of two-wheel vehicles such as motorcycles, e-scooters, and so on. States in the US offer a very welcoming regulatory environment, which is a big component to consider when talking about the potential future. The regulation is already in place in locations including Nevada, Arizona, and California that welcome self-driving companies to advance the technology and welcome passengers to embracing the technology in their daily lives.”

Q: Are you worried Western rivals might prove too strong as competitors?

“As I said earlier, the tech companies are truly best positioned to build out the self-driving technologies. Through our experience in the space over the last two years, we are feeling very confident about our team and what we are building. Of course, there are tough competitors but we welcome this, as it is ultimately helping drive the advancement of self-driving technology.”

Q: Do you plan to design and sell your own brand of self-driving car?

“Currently, it is too early to say exactly how it will play out. We are open to monetizing the investment in different ways. Licensing tech to OEMs is one possible path but there are others such as putting self-driving into our own fleets. We also consider other opportunities for using the technology to control any other type of vehicle such as trucks, robo-delivery pods etc.”

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