Shortly after revealing its driverless vehicle fleet has racked up over 2 million autonomous miles, a total that stands at 3 million today, Yandex unveiled its fourth-generation self-driving car design. It’s built atop the 2020 Hyundai Sonata and will soon join the Moscow company’s over 100 autonomous Toyota Priuses on the road.
Autonomous vehicle designs abound, from Uber and Waymo’s modified Volvo XC90 and Jaguar I-Pace to Cruise’s Origin, which is without steering wheel or pedals. But despite differences in appearance, each new generation brings improvements to perception systems, enabling the cars to navigate roads more safely than their predecessors.
This appears to be the case with Yandex’s fourth-generation car, at least, as it adds three cameras for a total of nine (up from the third generation’s six) and moves the radar system from beneath the bumpers to the roof. These changes, along with reoriented front lidar sensors, help it better distinguish smaller objects around the vehicle, Yandex says. The autonomous 2020 Sonata can supposedly “see” obstacles more quickly in scenarios with limited side visibility, such as when leaving an alley to turn onto a busy street.
Beyond those improvements, Yandex says the Hyundai Mobis team modified the Sonata’s electronic control units to “interface more effectively” with the former’s driverless control technology. (Last year, the companies inked a memorandum of understanding to architect the 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.) And while the internal computer’s specs are similar to those of the third generation, which packs several Nvidia GTX graphics cards, the cooling was “significantly” reworked to fit the Sonatas.
Work on a prototype vehicle began in May 2019, and it was tested on a closed track in a range of weather and simulated traffic conditions.
Yandex says an initial set of five Sonatas is now operating on the streets of Moscow. The company adds that 100 more will be added to the fleet and deployed as part of tests in Michigan and an ongoing robo-taxi program in Innopolis, Russia (but not Tel Aviv). That will bring the total size of the company’s fleet to roughly 200 by the end of 2020, including the 105 self-driving Toyota Priuses it has on the road.
Work on Yandex’s platform began in earnest in 2016, when the company’s 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, 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 to become more or less automatic in the future. Yandex says its taxis have given over 8,000 autonomous rides both with and without 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.
However, the pandemic threatens to push those plans far back into the future, as it could for competitors. Earlier this year, autonomous vehicle companies that include Waymo, Cruise, Uber, and Lyft were forced to 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 — could impact their paths to market.
Indeed, Yandex says the pandemic delayed this week’s announcement. “The development of the fourth-generation cars was completed earlier this year. We started operating the first set of the fourth-generation cars in early March when they were complete but delayed the announcement until the next steps were more clear,” a spokesperson said. “Moving forward, we will slowly roll out the other vehicles across our testing locations and put them on the roads in line with the local regulations … We are continually improving the AV tech, and this process is in parallel with the development of a new self-driving platform.”