Yandex, Russia’s multi-hyphenate internet giant, began testing its autonomous cars on Moscow’s icy winter roads over three years ago. The goal was to create a “universal” self-driving vehicle that could safely maneuver around different cities across the globe. Now, Yandex says its trials have been a resounding success. The vehicles recently hit a major milestone by driving over six million miles (10 million kilometers) in autonomous mode, with the majority of the distance traveled in the Russian capital.
That’s significant because Moscow poses some of the most difficult weather conditions in the world. In January alone, the city was hit by a Balkan cyclone that blanketed the streets in snow and caused temperatures to plummet to as low as minus 25 degrees Celsius (-13 degrees Fahrenheit). For self-driving cars — which rely on light-emitting sensors, known as LIDAR, to track the distance between objects — snowfall and condensation can play havoc with visibility.
To overcome the hazardous conditions, Yandex says it cranked up its LIDAR performance by implementing neural networks to filter snow from the lidar point cloud, thereby enhancing the clarity of objects and obstacles around the vehicle. It also fed historical winter driving data in to the system to help it to distinguish car exhaust fumes and heating vent condensation clouds. To top it all, Yandex claims the neural “filters” can help its vehicles beat human drivers in identifying pedestrians obscured by winter mist.
Driving on Moscow’s roads also helped improve the tech’s traffic navigation. The system was able to adjust to both sleet and harder icy conditions over time, according to Yandex, allowing it to gradually make better decisions on everything from acceleration to braking to switching lanes. In addition, the winter conditions pushed the system’s built-in localization tech to adapt to hazards such as hidden road signs and street boundaries and snow piles the “size of buildings.” This was made possible by the live mapping, motion, position and movement data measured by the system’s mix of sensors, accelerometers and gyroscopes.
When it launched the Moscow trial in 2017, Yandex was among the first to put autonomous cars through their paces in a harsh, frosty climate. But, soon after, Google followed suit by taking its Waymo project to the snowy streets of Ohio and Michigan.