Yandex today announced its cars have traveled 1 million miles combined on public roads. That’s up from 100,000 miles in April 2019 and 500,000 miles in August 2019.
Yandex credited an uptick in the number of miles its cars travel per week with the early milestone, which the company says is equivalent to driving every New York City street 166 times, or the distance the average driver will complete in 70 years. The cars now drive over 80,000 every week autonomously, nearly twice the weekly miles in 2018.
Yandex plans to expand its self-driving fleet to 1,000 cars within two years from about 50 now, which will enable it to run 1 million miles a week, Dmitry Polishchuk, head of Yandex’s autonomous business, said in an interview.
Yandex is working with regulators to allow a pilot project in two cities — Innopolis and Skolkovo — to test rides with no engineer on board, he said. Now, when people there order a self-driving ride from the Yandex Taxi app, an engineer sits in the front passenger seat with a red emergency button.
The annual cost of the autonomous tech that gets added on to a vehicle has dropped from about $50,000 in 2018 to $30,000 in 2019 — the same as the average yearly wage bill for a team drivers operating a single taxi for about 18 hours a day. The company believes the cost of the self-driving apparatus will fall further.
Since customers are unlikely to pay significantly higher prices for self-driving cars, the most logical model for companies in the industry is to operate fleets of vehicles to carry passengers, Polishchuck said.
“Being a part of Yandex Taxi, we can become one,” he said.
Yandex took a further step toward commercializing its tech in March, when it signed a deal with Hyundai to develop self-driving vehicles jointly with its engineers. The first autonomous Hyundai Sonata was released in July and Yandex plans to move its self-driving fleet to Hyundai-Kia cars, Polishchuk said. This enables discounts for the vehicles, as well as the prospect that Hyundai rolls out the Russian tech to other markets.
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 “thousands” of 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.
There’s a decent chance that car will be built in partnership with Hyundai Mobis. Yandex earlier this year signed a memorandum of understanding with Hyundai to develop control systems for autonomous vehicles, and to spearhead a driverless prototype vehicle based on standard Hyundai or Kia production model cars. The companies said at the time that they plan to build a new autonomous control system as an out-of-the-box solution intended for car manufacturers, car sharing services, and taxi fleets.
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 $264 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 built out a small autonomous shuttle fleet in New York City, following news of Apple acquisition target Drive.ai’s expansion into Arlington, Texas. Cruise 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.
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.