Self-driving cars are yet to become the everyday reality in Europe, but one European tech giant is racing to compete with Google’s Waymo and Uber on autonomous vehicles.
Russia’s Yandex has been developing autonomous vehicles since 2016, and in the four years since says it has racked up 4 million driverless kilometers across its operating markets of Russia, Israel, and latterly the US.
Longtime Yandex engineer Dmitry Polishchuk runs the firm’s self-driving division, and told Business Insider why he pioneered the self-driving unit inside Yandex. “It [had] become obvious that autonomous vehicles are the future of transportation,” he said. “And even being a relative newcomer, Yandex with its great talents and rich technological base could try to join the race.”
The unit originally began as part of a joint venture between Yandex and US ride-hailing giant Uber that more generally comprised food delivery and taxis. Uber separately runs its own self-driving program in the US.
“We started the development in early 2017,” Polishchuk said. “A few months later we had already shown our first prototype, by the end of the year began our tests on public roads, and half a year later we launched Europe’s first robotaxi service with no one behind the wheel.”
The rise of Yandex
Yandex is one of Europe’s few homegrown tech giants, listing in the US in 2011 and growing to a $23.1 billion market cap. The firm has generally focused on its home turf of Russia, a market that rivals conventionally consider to be tough.
Yandex is led by CEO and cofounder Arkady Volozh and began as a Russia-focused search engine. Like its Silicon Valley counterparts however, the firm’s reach has grown and now spans self-driving cars, email, e-commerce, food delivery, ride-hailing services and many other areas. It’s now more like a Google, Uber, and Amazon rolled into one.
There are both practical and political reasons that Yandex has seen off competition in its home market.
On the search side, Yandex is considered better than Google at Russian-language searches and also acts as a useful portal with additional services like mail and media.
And e-commerce is less well-established in Russia than in other European markets simply because vast parts of the country are unreachable. According to Data Insight, online shopping accounted for just 1.4% of Russia’s economy in 2019, versus 2.6% in the US.
It’s meant Amazon has stayed out of the country, seemingly unwilling to try and alter what has been a cash-focused economy. Yandex, better positioned to cater to its home consumers, has become dominant as a result.
Another reason is Russia’s moves toward technical sovereignty. In 2019, President Putin signed a law mandating that all phones sold in the country would need to be pre-installed with software made in Russia. That has benefited homegrown players though, as observers note, may also create political headaches.
Moving into autonomous vehicles
Yandex’s foray into self-driving cars is against a backdrop of big US companies doing much the same.
The process is complicated, and while Yandex is bullish, established automakers are more skeptical about the technology.
Training autonomous vehicles involves a complex array of technologies: You need cameras, radar, and usually laser-emitting LiDAR so the car can “see” what’s around it and “know” where it needs to go.
It’s particularly tough to train autonomous vehicles to navigate roads in Europe. As the CEO of UK driverless software firm FiveAI, Stan Boland, told Business Insider in 2018: “In Europe, our cities are medieval and complicated, density is much higher, human behaviors are different. Our cities were built from villages … I think a European city is much harder than a US city.”
Yandex has to contend with similar issues. The firm launched a driverless car trial in Moscow in 2018, testing cars on snow-laden roads and weather that blocked up camera systems.
The driverless cars team wrote in 2019: “One of our most serious challenges is predicting the behavior of others on the road. Our car recognizes objects around it (as well as their speeds and trajectories) in order to take the safest, most effective route. We’ll cover how we are solving this issue.”
Polishchuk also told Business Insider that self-driving vehicles needed to be able to navigate unpredictable, ever-changing situations.
“The biggest challenge for all the self-driving technology is not just being safer than a human driver, but also being equally effective as an experienced one,” he said. “That means the system needs to fully understand its surroundings and predict how the situation is going to change to plan both safe and efficient route. At the same time the real world is very unpredictable and constantly changing.”
Yandex has been keen to show off its advances, driving journalists and influential YouTubers around a predetermined route in Las Vegas last year in one of its driverless cars with no one in the driver’s seat (although a safety engineer was in the passenger seat).
Now the self-driving group will continue its efforts as a standalone firm. The unit had been part of an existing joint venture between Yandex and Uber that comprised food delivery and ridehailing. In September, Yandex announced the two would spin Yandex Self-Driving Business Group off, with Yandex taking a 74% stake, Uber holding about 19%, and employees and management holding the remainder. Yandex put in $150 million in new capital as part of the restructure.
Yandex’s fleet now comprises 130 cars, and the firm is working to expand beyond driverless cars into other autonomous vehicles. It’s already made headway in food delivery robots that can trundle around the urban environment dropping off food.
Polishchuk predicts that autonomous vehicles will roam freely around major cities within five years. “Mass use of autonomous vehicles will not only significantly increase road safety. AVs of all kinds (from long haul trucks to delivery bots) will also take the most routine part of our duties, leaving humans more favorable and interesting things to do,” he said.