After a couple of years spent testing its autonomous-drive system in Moscow and elsewhere in Russia, Yandex — the Russian equivalent of Google — showcased its self-driving product at CES in January.
The results were encouraging, based on my 20-minute drive in downtown Las Vegas traffic as a back seat passenger in a Toyota Prius fitted with the Yandex equipment. The ride was smooth — actually, smoother than other test cars I have tried in the past months.
I would say the vehicle’s behavior had a much more “human” feeling than I had expected, with smooth turns, less hesitation when merging into traffic, good acceleration and no sudden braking. The route included unprotected left-hand turns, pedestrian crossings and busy traffic with speeds exceeding 70 kph. A Yandex engineer was ready to step in if needed, but it wasn’t necessary during our ride.
To prepare for CES, the Yandex team retrofitted a Prius purchased in the U.S. with the necessary sensors and hardware for self-driving. The team then used the Russian company’s mapping technologies to build a custom high-definition map of Las Vegas neighborhoods.
Yandex’s proprietary self-driving software stack was then localized and optimized to the driving conditions of the city. According to Yandex, the transformation of both the car and the software was completed in one month.
Yandex aims to create and manage a fleet of autonomous vehicles, just like Alphabet’s Waymo, which is considered by many to be the world leader in the race to make autonomous cars a reality. Yandex launched a robotaxi service in two Russian cities in 2018, still with an engineer behind the steering wheel.
Dmitry Polishchuk, the head of the autonomous-driving project, said it will take three to five years before the system is ready for series production. His fleet has a dozen cars in Russia, plus one that should begin testing shortly in Israel.
As far as Europe is concerned, Polishchuk said it would be more complicated to get the necessary permits there. “Europe is very conservative in allowing tests of autonomous cars on public roads,” he said, “but these tests are essential.”