Monday, May 16, 2022

Russia’s Yandex fires two dozen US workers from its robotic and self-driving teams

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Yandex, the multibillion-dollar Russian technology company that operates a small fleet of autonomous vehicles in Ann Arbor, Michigan, fired more than two dozen American employees earlier this month, alleging its vehicle licenses had been suspended by Michigan state regulators. The edge has learned. But Michigan says this just isn’t true.

In the days following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Yandex interrupted its AV testing in Ann Arbor, as well as its testing of six-wheel delivery robots at several college campuses in Ohio and Arizona. But the hiatus would only be temporary — the company said it hoped to resume those operations at a later date.

Yandex claims it was informed on March 9 that its vehicle licenses were suspended by the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT). Six Ann Arbor-based safety drivers were fired, the company confirmed. (Yandex employed about 15 people in the city, according to a former employee.) In addition, Yandex also fired 21 employees in Arizona and Ohio who acted as on-site support staff for the company’s delivery robots.

However, the state says it is not true that Yandex’s licenses have been suspended. Yandex still has 14 valid factory plates registered with the state, said Tracy Wimmer, a spokesman for the Secretary of State for Michigan. “We have not received any requests to cancel them,” she says. As for the MDOT, it is did have a contract with Yandex to operate an autonomous ride-hail service at the 2021 North American International Auto Show in Detroitbut that contract was canceled on July 1 due to the pandemic.

“MDOT had no further business with Yandex,” Cranson said.

The company was piloting robotic delivery at several universities in Arizona and Ohio, with plans to expand to hundreds more.

But that’s not what Yandex told its employees – or The edge. Yandex, dubbed “the Google of Russia,” insists it was pressured by the state to halt its autonomous vehicle testing activities in Ann Arbor. “In early March 2022, the company’s legal counsel had a meeting with MDOT and was asked to suspend roadworks,” Yulia Shveyko, a Yandex spokesperson, said in an email. “On March 9, we were informed by [the] Michigan Department of Transportation that our testing license has been suspended. Road testing without a license is not possible, so we had to fire 6 safety drivers in Ann Arbor.”

When asked to respond to the information from MDOT and the Secretary of State, Shevyko declined. “I have shared with you all the details from our side that are currently available,” she said.

An employee said he was told Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer had received complaints about a Russian company that collected traffic data on public roads and ordered the suspension of Yandex’s licenses. (A spokesman for the governor deferred comment to MDOT.)

“We were caught off guard,” said the former Yandex employee. “And we were told that it was the governor of Michigan why we had to cease operations.”

Yandex has been interested in doing business in the US for over ten years. In 2009, the company opened Yandex Labs in Palo Alto, a 10-minute drive from Google’s headquarters. The company recruited nearly two dozen engineers to share the latest Silicon Valley trends with Moscow. according to wired

That interest expanded into autonomous vehicles after Yandex’s ride-hailing division, Yandex Taxi, acquired all of Uber’s operations in Russia in 2017. The two companies formed a joint venture, with several Uber executives joining Yandex’s board of directors. A year later, Yandex launched what it claimed to be “the world’s first robotic axis company” in Moscow. The company demonstrated a fully self-driving car at CES in Las Vegas in 2020 and then began testing self-driving cars in Ann Arbor. Later that year, it launched a robotic delivery pilot with Grubhub, with plans to potentially expand to 250 additional college campuses.

Those plans were turned upside down by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Uber has removed its executives from Yandex’s board and, after the sale of its stake in Yandex started last August, that process accelerated after the invasion. Grubhub ended its partnership with Yandexjust as privacy-focused search engine DuckDuckGo

In Ann Arbor, Yandex’s small team was rocked by the invasion, the former employee said. Many of the workers are immigrants with family in Russia and friends in Ukraine. And despite the company’s efforts to become less dependent on Moscow, the AV division still relied on decisions made at Yandex headquarters.

Initially, the message from Moscow was to sit quietly, according to the employee. “We were told that we have a certain amount of reserves specifically for international workers,” the employee said. “So you’ll be fine.”

Even Russia’s ban on SWIFT, the international payment system used by banks to send money around the world, seemed to be flouted. But then, on March 10, Yandex told the Ann Arbor team that they would be fired. The license plates were removed from the test vehicles and they were told that their insurance company had canceled their policy.

“If the governor hadn’t shut us down, I honestly believe they probably would have paid the bill for another month,” the employee said in an interview held before government agencies responded to Yandex’s claims.

After state regulators pointed out that Yandex still had valid vehicle licenses, the employee recalled that some colleagues had doubts about the claim that Governor Whitmer was indirectly responsible for the layoffs. A former Yandex employee said they reached out to a local Michigan legislator to confirm but were unable, according to a screenshot of a group chat shared with The edge

“As far as I can tell, my state legislator has not heard anything about the kind of governor revoking permits,” the employee said in the chat.

“Because it’s fake,” another replied. “But hey, whatever helps them sleep at night.”

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