Think about your favorite person to drive with, or your least favorite person. Now think about sitting in the back of a car that can drive itself but like them — a software setting in an autonomous vehicle to drive a certain way.
What I’m describing is within the realm of possibility considering my recent ride in a Yandex self-driving car.
Yandex ($YNDX), considered the “Google of Russia,” sent two of their self-driving cars to Las Vegas for CES again this year.
My ride in early January wasn’t my first in a self-driving car — I spent a few days last year in Arizona exploring the Waymo One robo-taxi service — but this was my first without someone physically in the driver’s seat.
During my ride an engineer sat in the passenger seat and Yulia Shveyko, Yandex Self-Driving’s head of PR, sat with me in the back.
The car drove itself out of the Hard Rock Hotel parking garage and around the Strip for 25 minutes. (That was about 10 minutes longer than my Waymo One ride last year.)
I was impressed by the way the Yandex self-driving taxi handled the parking garage. With cement walls, safety dividers, and unpredictable cars and pedestrians, garages are never the easiest places to drive for most humans. My car seemed to have no problem — and this was the most nerve-wracking part of my trip.
Out on the roads we moved into traffic with no issue. I enjoyed watching Vegas change from twilight to evening, slipping into its famous nightlife persona by the glow of building lights, signs, and vehicles.
As much as my gaze stayed focused on either the autonomously moving steering wheel or display tablet that visualized what the car was “seeing,” I couldn’t help but observe what an otherwise normal ride it was — uneventful, just like my first experience.
However, I picked up on one difference immediately: Yandex’s self-driving car was more aggressive than Waymo One’s*.
Lane changes felt a bit more abrupt. Stops for wandering pedestrians caught me off guard. And there seemed to be little to no hesitation to make turns left or right.
When I brought this up with Shveyko during the ride, she explained that the cars had been trained to drive in Moscow. Road infrastructures are different, she said. People and social rules. Las Vegas requires calmer driving, comparatively speaking.
In Moscow cars may have 50 meters to change lanes versus 100 here, she noted as an example.
And when I thought about the differences in people and social rules, I joked about building a New Jersey setting or Massachusetts setting into cars, and Shveyko didn’t disagree.
“More or less,” she said. “This is all adjustable.”
When she sat down with me again for our interview, she noted that the cars would have to be adjusted back to a Moscow setting.
“If we take this car from CES and put it back on Moscow roads without adapting it back, that probably would not go far enough or fast enough because Moscow driving requires a different approach,” she said.
Like Google, Yandex is a company made up of many different internet businesses. But its bread and butter is search and online advertising.
Yandex held more than 56 percent of the search market in Russia as of the third quarter of 2019. The company made 70 percent of its sales from ads — but unlike Google, it has an existing taxi and ride sharing business and that business is growing.
Between the third quarter of 2018 and 2019, Yandex grew its transportation unit revenue by 89 percent and it now accounts for 21 percent of the company’s overall revenue.
“This increase mainly reflected the solid performance of our ride-sharing business driven by increase in the number of rides and incentives optimization, the strong growth of our corporate Taxi offering,” the company said in its earnings report.
In 2018 the company merged with Uber’s ride-sharing business in Russia and surrounding countries into a new joint company. How much the new venture will invest in self-driving is unclear, but here in the U.S. Uber has been investing heavily in the technology — at one point burning $20 million a month.
Self-driving cars hold a lot of promise to reduce the high cost of ride-sharing and ride-hailing businesses. They can run without stopping, without pay. GM’s Cruise Automation for example estimates existing ride-hailing to cost about $3 per mile in the U.S., with an aim for $1 per mile cost with robo- taxi services.
But the technology required to build cars that can do this, to develop facilities to maintain and deploy them, are heavy upfront investments. Many analysts are skeptical the economics can work out ideally and swiftly to become a profitable solution to more costly human drivers.
Shveyko says comparing hardware (cost of car now vs. cost of self-driving car) doesn’t encompass the whole value. And the economics play out differently in Russia.
“The software is a driver,” she said, implying that cost would be divided among the hardware (the cars).
In a regular taxi, she explained, the cost has to include the salary of two taxi drivers for the whole day plus the cost of the car.
In Russia specifically, given the lower salaries for taxi drivers than here in the U.S., Shveyko says that for the company’s fleet of about 100 robo-taxis in the country, the operation costs compared to a taxi with human drivers are “already more or less similar.”
When I asked my co-anchor Brad Smith to react to the experience I captured he said he was “desensitized” to the imagery.
As someone who talks about this space all day and watches videos of cars driving themselves on screen all the time I can of course relate to this sentiment. Yet that feeling of slight disbelief re-emerged as I buckled up for my ride and lingered in the back of my mind and chest well after I left Vegas.
I don’t know when I’ll get used to it — sitting behind a steering wheel that moves on its own, watching the roads around me change.
Having spent all my life accustomed to the imagery and sensation of being driven by a human I imagine it will take some years and dozens if not hundreds of trips.
But then I think about the baby shower I am attending this weekend. My friend’s daughter who will be born in a new decade where she will have seen these images and videos of self-driving cars much earlier in her life than me and her mother’s generation. Will that slight sense of disbelief — that she doesn’t have to be in control of a vehicle — exist for her?
*Waymo One’s vehicle drove more cautiously, waiting a few seconds longer than most drivers would to pull out or make turn. The difference was also likely more noticeable since my trip in Arizona was during broad desert daylight versus an evening during CES.