Russian tech giant Yandex has been testing autonomous vehicles on public roads since December 2017, starting in Moscow and later expanding to Innopolis and Skolkovo, Russia, as well as Las Vegas. The program’s next phase saw cars reach Tel Aviv’s city limits, and now, after five months of successful testing in Israel, the company is prepping for further expansion.
Yandex today announced that it’ll open a local Tel Aviv office with a team of self-driving engineers and that it plans to operate upwards of 100 driverless cars worldwide by the end of this year. “Combined, the driving conditions and challenges of [new] locations ultimately help advance our self-driving system to better operate in new environments,” wrote Yandex in a blog post. “We’re excited to continue our work building a scalable autonomous technology that can operate in any number of driving conditions.”
Toward that end, Yandex notes, there’s more roundabouts in Israel compared with the U.S. and Russia, and that Tel Aviv drivers often park their cars wherever they can find a spot in the city’s narrow, winding roads. Unlike drivers in Moscow, which tend to exceed speed limits by up to 12 miles per hour (the minimum threshold to exceed in order to get a ticket), Israelis are less likely to speed on average. And two-wheeled vehicles — namely bicycles, scooters, and motorbikes — are far more common in downtown Tel Aviv neighborhoods than in Russian metros.
“These are just a few examples of the challenges and opportunities we’re encountering across our test locations as we advance our self-driving technology to be universal and scalable,” wrote Yandex. “By teaching our tech how to process numerous road hazards around the world, such as two-wheeled vehicles, pedestrians, erratic driving, and challenging weather, we are better preparing our self-driving car to operate in new locations.”
Work on Yandex’s platform began in earnest in 2016, when the company’s 120-person self-driving team started piecing 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 three Velodyne lidars (sensors that measure the distance to target objects by illuminating them with laser light and measuring the reflected pulses), five cameras, eight radars, and GPS.
Currently, a small team within Yandex handcrafts maps of areas ahead of deployments, but the company expects the process will become more or less automatic in the future. To date, Yandex says its autonomous taxis have given over 2,000 rides with in-car safety drivers who keep tabs on route progress (along with teleoperators), and within four years, the company intends to build a car without a steering wheel that’s capable of “human-level” driving in certain cities.
Yandex has competition in Daimler, which last summer obtained a permit from the Chinese government allowing it to test autonomous cars powered by Baidu’s Apollo platform on public roads in China, and Beijing-based Pony.ai, which has raised $214 million in venture capital and in early April launched a driverless taxi pilot in Guangzhou. Meanwhile, Alphabet’s Waymo, which launched a commercial driverless taxi service in December 2018, says it’s now servicing over 1,000 riders with a fleet of more than 600 cars.
Startup Optimus Ride said earlier this year that it would build out a small autonomous shuttle fleet in New York City, following news of driverless car company Drive.ai’s expansion into Arlington, Texas. GM’s Cruise Automation has been testing an autonomous taxi service for employees in San Francisco and plans to launch a public service this year. Other competitors include Tesla, Zoox, Aptiv, May Mobility, Pronto.ai, Aurora, and Nuro, to name a few others.
According to marketing firm ABI, as many as 8 million driverless cars will be added to the road in 2025, and Research and Markets anticipates that there will be some 20 million autonomous cars in operation in the U.S. by 2030.