Yandex’s drive to develop universal and scalable self-driving technology

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Artem Fokin, head of business development for Yandex Self-Driving Cars, reveals more about the company’s autonomous car program as it surpasses one million miles of testing on public roads

Combining Yandex’s expertise in machine learning, navigation, mapping tools and cloud technologies, Yandex’s first self-driving prototype was introduced in May 2017. Our mission is to make roadways safer with universal and scalable self-driving technology. Yandex rapidly advanced from testing the prototypes on closed tracks to autonomously navigating the diverse and busy streets of Moscow, Russia; Tel Aviv, Israel; and Las Vegas, Nevada, USA. Yandex self-driving operates a ride hailing service in the Russian tech hubs of Innopolis and Skolkovo through the Yandex.Taxi app, with just the safety engineer in the passenger seat. We recently exceeded a million miles of autonomous driving, which has included over 4,000 passenger rides.

The Yandex self-driving team consists of over 200 people who bring an array of expertise and deep experience in mapping, computer vision and machine learning.

Yandex currently has a fleet of 64 vehicles, which we are expanding to 100 by the end of the year and 1,000 over the next couple of years. Our fleets consist of retrofitted Priuses and we are actively adding 2020 Hyundai Sonatas, thanks to our collaboration with Hyundai Mobis.

We have tested our vehicles in Moscow, Tel Aviv, Las Vegas, and Skolkovo and Innopolis, where we have been running our robo-taxi program for over a year. All of these locations provide diverse real-world driving and weather conditions.

Moscow and Tel Aviv were recently ranked among the 20 most congested cities in the world at 5th and 19th place, respectively. Within a mile in Moscow and Tel Aviv, our self-driving cars must navigate a diverse set of driving challenges. Vastly different from a mile in suburban towns, a mile in these hectic urban environments includes assertive drivers, jaywalkers, traffic jams and weather that ranges from snow and ice to intense heat. By completing over a million autonomous miles in our demanding testing locations, our self-driving program rapidly advanced in a relatively short time period.

Our cars have navigated public roads with different legal and social driving rules, in three countries. We operate in areas where there is heavy traffic, unprotected left-hand turns, uncontrolled intersections and roundabouts, four-lane roads, heavy pedestrian traffic, and among other conditions.

Real-world experience in challenging conditions ultimately drives innovation and ensures we are continuing to build a platform meant to safely operate among other vehicles and pedestrians.

Throughout our testing and each mile driven, our technologies are improving by facing more challenging scenarios on the road and collecting more data to improve predictions.

When considering progress and miles driven, it’s important to understand what type of driving conditions the cars are facing. From one program to another, miles completed could mean very different things depending on the locations and conditions. For instance, highway driving is very different than driving in heavy traffic in highly populated and congested cities. Regardless, significant miles completed indicates a certain advanced level.

New partnership
In March, we signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Hyundai Mobis to jointly develop Level 4 and Level 5 autonomous vehicles; this agreement envisioned our self-driving technologies with Hyundai Mobis’s automotive industry experience. The initial goal of this collaboration was to create an autonomous prototype based on a Hyundai or Kia model. We quickly built a prototype on the 2020 Hyundai Sonata, which we are integrating into our fleet. We are also demonstrating a fleet of 10 vehicles at the 2020 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Michigan.

Looking ahead, in collaboration with Hyundai Mobis and other automotive partners, we plan to build an out-of-the-box autonomous driving solution intended for a wide variety of automotive platforms.

The new Sonata is a good candidate for our self-driving system because its innovative platform allows for easy integration of our technology and hardware with minimal modifications. The debut of the Sonata prototype is an important milestone in our collaboration with Hyundai Mobis.

The self-driving Sonata will be part of our growing self-driving fleet; the partnership with Hyundai Mobis will allow us to introduce more self-driving prototypes based on other Hyundai and Kia models.

On the technological front, the main challenge is predicting an environment because humans can be very unpredictable. For instance, when we first started testing in Tel Aviv we needed to adapt to more substantial e-scooter traffic. E-scooters challenge drivers and our self-driving car to react to dynamic behaviors that alternate between riding on the roads and sidewalks, depending on the best options to cut through traffic.

Despite technological advancements, regulatory barriers continue to limit the development speed of autonomous technology and thus extend the horizon where necessary safety records can be proven.

Regulatory environments for self-driving cars vary widely around the world, but generally speaking, substantive testing requires open and transparent environments. Self-driving cars require extensive, real-world testing to reach their full potential and become safe, mainstream methods of transportation. While some European countries are creating the conditions for such testing, the region’s regulators could do far more to support the development of autonomous technologies.

When will autonomous cars become common place?
Driverless cars will be introduced gradually in conjunction with the development of self-driving technology, at first navigating predictable conditions and then advancing to more challenging ones. Our cars are already capable of driving in fully autonomous mode in cities where there is light traffic.

After a year of operating our robo-taxi service in Innopolis, our self-driving cars have become completely common for the local community there. They hail a robo-taxi to the office or a restaurant and no longer notice the fact that there is no one behind the steering wheel. In a year, we expect our vehicles to be as capable on the outskirts of big cities, and in two years, we anticipate progressing to fully autonomous mode in specific districts of big cities. Within three to five years, we believe that autonomous cars will be driving better than humans in the most challenging places, such as the centers of big cities. From there, the application of the technology will become widespread.

We see every advancement – small and large – as an important step of progress to achieving our goals. In addition to further technological improvements, there must also be comprehensive regulation to operate the vehicles and public acceptance. The more we can test and prove our technology, the more both regulators and the public will gain confidence in autonomous vehicles.

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