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Online search giant Yandex to launch self-driving robots

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Via Financial Times

Russian search giant Yandex is planning to launch a fleet of autonomous delivery robots as it ramps up its self-driving car, ecommerce, and restaurant app services.

Yandex said on Thursday it had begun testing the robots — named Yandex Rover for its resemblance to the Mars rover — at its Moscow headquarters ahead of a planned rollout early next year. Later, the company plans to sell the robots to other ecommerce companies for last mile delivery and warehouse logistics. 

The six-wheeled robot, which Yandex began developing in the summer, joins a host of competitors including Amazon’s Scout, Estonia’s Starship Technologies, and Google sister company Sidewalk Labs that are testing their own models. 

Yandex hopes to stand out from those by using the technology from its self-driving car project to drive the robots, which will operate on the company’s popular maps and navigation systems. It said the robots can drive in the dark and in bad weather.

In ecommerce, Yandex and state bank Sberbank are challenging rival Mail.ru’s partnership with Alibaba through Yandex Market, an online marketplace.

Though it only began developing autonomous vehicles two years ago, Yandex’s experience in machine learning, engineering, and image search has helped it gain ground on more experienced competitors such as Google’s Waymo, according to Artem Fokin, head of business development for the self-driving car unit.

“If we had been doing the same thing from scratch it would have taken us at least an extra year to get where we are now,” Mr Fokin said. He also said that Yandex had quickly moved to test its cars, and now has 1m miles in test drives. Waymo said in July it had amassed 10bn miles of test drives.

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“Even if you’ve put a huge amount of money to pay engineers with big brains — if you don’t have practical experience of regular testing you basically don’t understand anything,” Mr Fokin added.

Self-driving taxis could potentially double Yandex Taxi’s take rates while eliminating ride costs by up to 35 per cent, HSBC said this year.

The self-driving cars are already doing road tests in Moscow and Tel Aviv. They can be hailed by users without an engineer in the driving seat in Innopolis, a tech development hub on the Volga that operates under separate legislation.

Yandex announced last month that it would move the self-driving car unit, which is part-owned by Uber after they merged their Russian businesses in 2017, into a separate legal structure before a planned public listing of its taxi division. Growth in the taxi division saw the combined company turn a quarterly profit for the first time earlier this year despite lossmaking investments into the self-driving cars.

Analysts at UBS expect Yandex’s self-driving cars to be worth between $2.6bn and $6.4bn by 2030, depending on whether the company can clear sufficient regulatory hurdles such as the launch of self-driving trucks.

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