Back in the throes of the Cold War, Americans awoke on the morning of Oct. 4, 1957, to learn the Soviet Union successfully launched Sputnik I, the first artificial satellite, into space. It was a development that escalated the space race and punctured assumptions the United States had led in technological mettle.
Could something similar happen again, with self-driving cars?
With much fanfare surrounding Waymo's self-driving vehicle project in Arizona, Ford's focus on Miami as a launch point for commercial driverless service, and dozens of other companies doing some form of testing here, the United States has been both the birthplace and leader in autonomous-driving technology.
But it's worth pondering if the leader could someday change. Yandex, a giant Russian search-engine firm that also runs a taxi booking service in more than 100 cities, started working on autonomous technology in 2016 and formally started a self-driving development program in January 2017.
They often draw comparisons to Google and Baidu, other search-engine giants in their respective countries that have launched autonomous-driving projects. But the comparisons to Google and its Waymo autonomous subsidiary are promptly rejected by the Russians.
"People say Yandex is the Google of Russia," says Pavel Vorobev, head of product at Yandex. "But it's a little offensive. It's more like we are the Silicon Valley of Russia."
This month, roughly two years into the autonomous-driving division's existence, Yandex engineers came to Las Vegas during CES to let outsiders go for ride-alongs and gauge their progress.
From the start, there was a clear contrast between the Yandex demonstration and a dozen or so other self-driving rides others conducted that week. Others required their human safety drivers to operate the vehicle in private parking lots and engage autonomous mode only when we reached a public road. But the Toyota Prius V used by Yandex was under computer control from the moment we rolled out of a parking stall within the garage at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, though a human safety driver was behind the wheel.
It was the computer that braked, not the human safety driver, when a smartphone-addled pedestrian stepped in front of our path without so much as noticing as we paused before departing on a ride around Vegas.