I buckle my seat belt, and then double-check it after I climb into the back of a white, black, and orange Toyota Prius V wagon. I’m tense, but the two engineers, one in back with me, the other riding shotgun, seem reassuringly relaxed.
We roll forward, turning right out of the parking lot at the Hard Rock Hotel, and head into the streets of Las Vegas—with nobody in the driver’s seat. Soon, the car is merging into traffic at 40 mph, the steering wheel spinning and the turn signals flicking on and off on their own. I’ve witnessed plenty of self-driving demonstrations, some of them here in Vegas, but never one without a human holding their hands over the controls, poised to brake or swerve if the computer struggles.
“The first time with nobody behind the wheel, it’s a different experience,” says Dmitry Polishchuk, head of autonomous driving for Yandex, who’s sitting next to me. “But at some point you stop paying attention.”
I pepper him with questions about what the car’s doing, keeping an eye on the screen between the back seats that gives a representation of what the self-driving computer can see, and the decisions it’s making. He interrupts me at one point, smiling: “Look to your right.” I glance at the next lane, where a driver is double=, then triple-checking what’s she’s seeing. Even during CES, when the Las Vegas Strip is peppered with autonomous vehicles and their distinctive, bulky sensors, a car with nobody in the driver’s seat is a big deal. I catch her eye, and she joins us laughing at the absurd situation.
Americans may not know Yandex, but a large proportion of the global population uses its services every day. The tech giant is referred to, depending on the situation, as the Google, Uber, Spotify, Amazon, or Baidu of Russia. It runs a fleet of hundreds of thousands of taxis in former Soviet bloc countries. And it believes it can be a major player in the highly competitive self-driving sector.
A tight merge makes me brace, when another car looks to cut us off. “This is the most complicated problem, the other drivers on the road,” says Polishchuk. In Las Vegas, at least, they tend to follow the rules. “When they do a left turn, they’re not doing it from the very right,” he says. The streets of Russia are more chaotic, the drivers pushier, he says. The Yandex car slows a little, evaporating the drama.
The weather is also much worse in Moscow, with regular snow. Polishchuk notes that’s all good when you’re training a self-driving car. “We are naturally pushed to deal with problems,” he adds, a subtle dig at the likes of Waymo, which has chosen to test in the suburbs of Phoenix, Arizona, in part because of the generally good weather. Yandex’s approach looks more like that of GM’s Cruise, which tests in San Francisco: Train in extreme conditions, so that then ordinary driving will come easy.
The demo drive certainly makes it look that way. The team got to Vegas two weeks before CES to map the roads and hand-annotate the results to mark lanes, traffic lights, and other stationary objects. They bought a used car and retrofitted it with the sensors for self-driving. In a sleek rooftop box sit three lidars (these ones are from Velodyne, but Yandex has also worked with Innoviz and Quanergy). Six cameras look forward, backward, and at each corner. GPS helps with location. Under the floor of the trunk, Polishchuk shows me the compact computer turning their data into driving decisions.
(Running without a driver at the wheel is legal in Nevada, as long as there’s an engineer “seated in a position to take immediate control,” monitoring. In Yandex’s case, he was in the passenger seat, holding a button that would trigger the car’s brakes if necessary.)
After Uber’s fatal self-driving crash in Arizona in March 2018, companies testing in the US have pulled back on the big promises. Uber has resumed testing, but now has two trained safety drivers in each vehicle (where previously it had just one). Waymo was due to launch a fully driverless commercial service by the end of last year, but instead is running an underwhelming service with a human still at the wheel, just in case.
“Traditional wisdom was companies like Google, Waymo, or Toyota, or GM, or even Uber are going to be really responsible, because if something bad happens it will affect their entire business,” says Bryant Walker Smith, a professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law who studies automated vehicle policy. “I would like to see a little more sharing by all companies about their approach, other than just the superficial ‘trust us.’”
So far, though, Yandex isn’t sharing much beyond assurances that it knows what it’s doing. “We have an old culture of mass-market development, and building huge systems with reliability built in,” says Arkady Volozh, Yandex’s CEO and cofounder. The company will use remote operators in call centers, who can dial into to cars to help them out in tricky conditions. (This is a common approach, as autonomous driving developers know they can’t model or train their AIs to handle absolutely anything.)
The company is already running tests around business parks in Russia, and says it has given 2,000 rides to members of the public since August 2018. The long-term plan is to automate the entire fleet of taxis, hopefully starting this year, and eventually to build a car with no steering wheel, like Google (now Waymo) once proposed, and General Motors plans on producing.
As the car pauses properly for a pedestrian, and then pulls back into the garage, we all breathe a sigh of relief. Me, that I survived, and the engineers, that the demo went flawlessly. It will need to continue to do so, in a much wider range of conditions, to be ready for public use. But if Yandex can make that happen, it means that the first self-driving taxis may be deployed by a company you’ve never heard of, yet.