Yandex inks deal with Hyundai to build self-driving car tech for its Mobis OEM division

On the heels of Hyundai becoming the latest investor in Ola, today another key deal was revealed that underscores Hyundai’s ambitions in next-generation automotive services. Yandex, the Russian search giant that has been working on self-driving car technology, has inked a partnership with Hyundai to develop software and hardware for autonomous car systems.

While companies like Google, Apple and Baidu have been working on different aspects of connected cars with automotive companies — covering both infotainment integrations as well as some starts in self-driving technology — this is Yandex’s first partnership with a carmaker, and specifically, an OEM.

Yandex said its memorandum of understanding covers working with Hyundai Mobis, the car giant’s OEM parts and service division, where the plan is “to create a self-driving platform that can be used by any car manufacturer or taxi fleet” that will cover both a prototype as well as parts for other car-makers. Mobis supplies Hyundai as well as its partly-owned Kia and fully-owned Genesis subsidiaries, along with other automakers, so those are likely the first vehicles that will see the fruits of this deal.

“This is our first partnership, and a clear validation of the intensive development of our self-driving platform. We have already performed thousands of rides in our autonomous taxi service fulfilled without a driver in the driver’s seat,” Dmitry Polishchuk, who heads up Yandex’s self-driving car efforts, said to TechCrunch in an email. “We are excited to combine the experience of Hyundai Mobis in the automotive industry with Yandex’s technological achievements. This should help us to accelerate the pace of self-driving tech development.” In terms of future partnerships, Yandex notes that the agreement is “not exclusive, and we are open to work with other partners.”

The financial terms of the deal are not being disclosed, a Yandex spokesperson told TechCrunch. To give some context, Hyundai Motors is the third-largest automotive company in the world, and it describes Mobis as the sixth-largest OEM. In addition to the $300 million stake it announced earlier today in India’s ride-sharing upstart Ola, it’s forged financial and strategic partnerships with a string of other companies building technology for autonomous systems, including WayRaySoundHound, and Aurora.

Yandex, meanwhile, has been working on self-driving car tech since 2017, equipping Toyota models for a series of pilots in closed-campus environments in Russia, Tel Aviv and most recently Las Vegas, Nevada (during the CES show, where cars-as-the-latest-hardware has become a dominant theme). Yandex said that its pilots so far have been so-called “robotaxi” efforts: that is, there are safety engineers sitting in the driver’s passenger seat, but the cars have been operating autonomously otherwise.

Yandex — similar to Baidu in China and Google, well, globally — initially made its name in search but has diversified into a variety of areas over the years, tapping R&D in machine learning and other technologies to move into maps and ride-sharing services, among other related areas.

Yandex.Taxi is now active in 15 countries — Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Israel, the Ivory Coast, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Serbia, Uzbekistan, Finland, and Estonia — and that service is one obvious application for this partnership. Similar to Uber (which handed off some operations to Yandex in 2017), Yandex is looking at self-driving technology — which is part of the bigger Yandex.Taxi operation — as one way of expanding its fleet in the years to come.

Hyundai, similar to other automakers, has been chipping away at self-driving with multiple partnerships with third parties, this deal is breaking new ground for Yandex. Some have pigeonholed as “Russia’s Google” and it has for years been looking for ways to expand its profile and reach into more countries outside its home market. Self-driving cars is a ripe opportunity for Yandex, since it’s proving to be a very complex area that will likely involve a number of players collaborating together — automakers, AI specialists, mapping companies, component manufacturers, nano-energy experts, network operators and more — in the bigger effort to reach level-5 fully-autonomous systems.

“Our self-driving technologies are unique and have already proven their scalability. Yandex’s self-driving cars have been successfully driving on the streets of Moscow, Tel Aviv and Las Vegas, which means that the fleet can be expanded to drive anywhere,” said Arkady Volozh, CEO of Yandex. “It took us just two years to go from the first basic tests to a full-fledged public robotaxi service. Now, thanks to our agreement with Hyundai Mobis, we will be able to move even faster.”

Sidenote: I asked Yandex why Hyundai hasn’t included a quote or issued its release, and I was told that Hyundai’s own statements will be coming after the official signing ceremony, which is happening later.