Moscow-based tech giant Yandex today announced it has expanded testing of its self-driving cars to Michigan. A fleet of Yandex’s driverless vehicles recently hit Ann Arbor city streets, including the company’s fourth-generation autonomous Hyundai Sonatas created in partnership with Hyundai Mobis.
Yandex says it had planned to provide rides in its autonomous taxis in Detroit during the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS), which was scheduled to take place in June. The company had already done a significant amount of preparatory work by mid-spring, so when NAIAS was canceled in April, Yandex began searching for a Michigan location to facilitate longer-term commercial testing.
Yandex says Michigan’s “progressive” and “supportive” regulatory environment will enable “rapid” development and advancement. That’s because unlike Moscow, Tel Aviv, and Las Vegas, where Yandex also conducts testing, Ann Arbor allows operators autonomy — driverless cars aren’t required to have safety drivers behind the wheel. The central Russian college town of Innopolis, where Yandex operates a robo-taxi service, is the only location in the country that lets autonomous cars transport passengers without a driver.
Michigan also allows companies to test cars without driver controls like steering wheels and pedals. In addition, the state permits the public sale of autonomous vehicles once they have been tested and certified.
Yandex’s driverless vehicle fleet has racked up over 3 million autonomous miles. The aforementioned retrofitted Sonatas are responsible for a portion of those, alongside the company’s over 100 autonomous Toyota Priuses. (Last year, Yandex and Hyundai inked a memorandum of understanding to architect control systems for level 4 and level 5 cars, categories of automation defined by the Society of Automotive Engineers as requiring limited to no human intervention.) Yandex expects to add 100 Sonatas to its Innopolis deployment in the coming months to bring its total fleet size to over 200 by 2021.
Work on Yandex’s self-driving car platform began in earnest in 2016, when the company’s team pieced together components atop a Toyota Prius V chassis. What emerged is largely custom, from the sizable under-the-trunk PC to the roof-mounted sensor stack consisting of multiple lidars, cameras, radars, and GPS.
A small team within Yandex handcrafts maps of areas ahead of deployments, but the company expects the process to become more or less automatic in the future. Yandex says its taxis have given over 8,000 autonomous rides in Moscow, Innopolis, Tel Aviv, and Las Vegas, both with and without in-car safety drivers who keep tabs on route progress (along with teleoperators).
Within four years, Yandex intends to build a car without a steering wheel that’s capable of “human-level” driving in certain cities. But the pandemic threatens to push those plans far back into the future, as it could for competitors. Autonomous vehicle companies, including Waymo, Cruise, Uber, and Lyft, were forced to temporarily pause commercial and testing efforts as a result of shelter-in-place orders. Some have since resumed, but experts believe the disruptions — and economic fallout — are likely to impact go-to-market strategies.